Imagine the sweet boysenberry, and the time when it did not exist. The story of the Knotts, among Southern California's most familiar but media-shy first families, begins here. From six scraggly boysenberry plants, the saga unfolds across generations and culminates with the emotional sale of the nation's last major family-owned amusement park. And without the boysenberry, the whole thing might not have happened.
Crossing a loganberry, a blackberry and a red raspberry, a farmer and Anaheim parks superintendent named Rudolph Boysen created a larger berry but then abandoned his scraggly hybrids in his orchard. Word of the cross-pollination intrigued Walter Knott, a farmer with 20 rented acres in Buena Park. Knott nursed the near-dead plants into beauties, and through the 1920s his wife, Cordelia, turned what wasn't sold from their stand into pies and jams and preserves. By 1931 Knott was among the best-known berry growers in California.
Knott's Berry Farm evolved from a berries-by-the-basket roadside endeavor to a roadhouse chicken restaurant in 1934 to the themed amusement park--the oldest in the nation--that's visited annually by 3.7 million people and was valued at $300 million when the family sold it to Ohio-based Cedar Fair in 1997.
Still, four years after the sale, the park retains much of the family's unpretentious style and down-home values. You can still eat at Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant, where people line up on the most wintry midweek day for affordable meals, just as their grandparents did. There is still no admission charge to visit Independence Hall, a replica of the Philadelphia landmark that Walter Knott built across from the park entrance on Beach Boulevard. And how many other amusement parks in America have a church with its own pastor and congregation?
Despite the family's retreat from the enterprise it created--it still controls an estimated 13% of the corporate stock--the Knott family remains stitched into the fabric of the region, its identity interwoven with Southern California's sense of place, its legacy apparent in the family's continuing philanthropy.
Walter Knott's politics and ideology were well known, and his potent leadership in Orange County's grass-roots conservative movement helped reshape the Republican Party on a national level. But the Knott children have kept a low profile for all of their adult lives. They reluctantly agreed to a series of interviews during the past two years, and it quickly became clear how much Knott's Berry Farm reflects the personality of the family that created it.
Family fortunes don't always pass quietly to succeeding generations, and some well-known names now seem synonymous with rancorous family feuds: Bingham. Dart. Gallo. But for a generation, the four Knott siblings and their parents worked side by side running the family amusement park south of the Riverside Freeway.
The first generation of Knott children went to work every day at "the farm," as they still call it, and held weekly board meetings at the ancestral wood house that remained behind the chicken restaurant until just months ago. Walter and Cordelia lived out their lives in that home. Virginia, now 88, ran her namesake gift shop. Marion, now 79, oversaw the design of the rides. Russell, now 85, managed personnel and government relations. Only Toni, now 84, was an inactive general partner, though her late husband, Ken, played a key role. The board meetings eventually were moved to a larger table at Independence Hall as the third generation became general partners.
"It didn't matter what we disagreed on at the board meeting," Marion Knott Montapert recalls. "We always left on good terms and had lunch together afterward . . . . The rule was, we had equal votes, but if any one person felt very strongly against something, we would try not to do it."
"The girls," as everyone refers to the sisters, live walking distance apart in Newport Beach's exclusive Big Canyon. They see brother Russell, who lives with wife Milly at a Fullerton retirement development, about once a month. The siblings lived for decades in La Habra Heights, a fittingly low-key community for the wealthy who shun attention.
They live more expensively than their parents did, but their modesty and mirth make them seem like the kind of rich folk I like to think I'd be. Marion Knott Montapert's main status symbol is a loud red Volkswagen Bug, about which she enjoys telling grandkids and others: "In my car, its called a vase, not a voz."
Try to imagine the following scenario with someone named Disney: During a visit with Russell and Milly Knott at their modest Fullerton home in the spring of 1999, they fussed over my pregnancy and insisted on fixing me lunch: homemade deviled-ham sandwiches, Fig Newtons and carrot sticks. Then they saw me to my car.
Their earthiness no doubt was born of hard times. For a decade after Walter Knott came to Buena Park in 1920, the family grew the berries, rhubarb and other vegetables that the four children sold along the dirt road near what is today Beach Boulevard.
The family struggled through the Great Depression. Cordelia pitched in by selling what she canned, along with fresh-squeezed berry juice and, later, pies. By 1934, she was selling chicken dinners, each complete with side dishes, a beverage and a slice of pie, to select groups of diners for 65 cents each. They ate off of her wedding china.
Her four children are equally unpretentious, and they had little interest in being the focus of a magazine story. Confessed Montapert: "Really, honey, we'd rather you didn't do it at all."
Still, the knotts are hard to ignore. for decades the four children let their father speak for the brood. Now, a generation after his death, they continue to donate millions to an array of causes and institutions--from the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda and Chapman University in Orange to the Buena Park Boys and Girls Club and smaller charities, some launched by their offspring. Goodwill Industries of Orange County has an annual award named after their father that honors disabled individuals who overcame challenges. Montapert is on the Chapman University board of trustees. Her sisters still host charity events, especially those benefiting needy children.
They favor causes that have touched them personally. Cordelia Knott had breast cancer, and all three of her daughters were diagnosed with it at a young age and survived. Virginia and Toni have survived it twice. They support some causes their father championed, though none of his children are as political as he was.
"When you think of Orange County, you've got to think of the Knotts," Gaddi Vasquez, former county supervisor, told a crowd of nearly 500 who honored the family at a Salvation Army awards dinner in 1999. "It is a great family that has made legendary contributions to this county."
When the "Spirit of the Army" award was given to the Knotts, Col. Bill Luttrell cited the four Knott elders and six other attending family members for their "exemplary, extraordinary service to others. Long before the expression 'Just do it' this family was doing it."
Their involvement in the landmark family enterprise ended as it began--together. When the family decided to sell the park, they searched for quite a while to find a corporate owner that shared their down-home vision and values.
Though pained by it, they do not regret the sale. It made them rich. It also was time to let a corporation compete in an industry that now demands a new million-dollar attraction almost yearly to survive among the region's other amusement parks. But neither are they quite the same since relinquishing the livelihood their parents scratched out of a desolate patch of land.
"The hardest thing is, I'm home with no place to go and nobody wants me or needs me," sighs Virginia Knott Bender. She still remembers traveling by horse-drawn buggy as a child and days so poor that the family survived on its cow's milk. She admits that working every day and fretting about rain's impact on park business are hard habits to break.
I asked the youngest, Marion, to show me around the old Ghost Town of antique Western dwellings that her father brought in to entertain long lines of Depression-era diners, or to the restaurant where she and her sisters helped their mother prepare and serve those first chicken dinners. She politely but firmly refused, explaining that she has not returned to the farm since its sale became final in December 1997.
"When you've spent your life there, and it has always been yours, and all of a sudden it's not yours," she says, "it's too hard to go back. I need to remember it in my mind like it was."