Virginia Knott Bender, the eldest of four children of the couple who turned a small berry patch in Buena Park into one of Southern California’s earliest and most successful visitor attractions, died Friday. She was 90.
Bender died at her home in Newport Beach after a long illness, said her sister, Marion Knott Montapert.
From the time she was a child, Bender worked at the farm on Beach Boulevard that Walter Knott first rented in 1920 and later bought and turned into a family attraction he called Knott’s Berry Place. It was renamed Knott’s Berry Farm in 1947.
Bender began by working with her parents and siblings at a roadside fruit stand and later, like her sisters, was a waitress at the farm’s chicken dinner restaurant.
In 1939, she became proprietor of Virginia’s Gift Shop.
Actually, when it started it was “nothing but some gifts on a card table,” according to Montapert.
By the mid-1950s, Walter and Cordelia Knott had made the farm into a home-spun attraction that grew as the Knotts devised new ways to keep their customers happy while they waited in long lines for chicken dinners.
Eventually, Knott’s included a Ghost Town with live music and dancing, a “saloon,” animal shows, burro rides and the Calico Railroad, a steam-powered train that made a short trek on narrow-gauge tracks.
Knott’s also made famous the boysenberry -- named for Rudolph Boysen, a parks superintendent who had crossed blackberry, red raspberry and loganberry plants. No one, it seemed, could leave the theme park without buying a jar of boysenberry jam at Virginia’s Gift Shop or eating a piece of boysenberry pie.
When Disneyland opened in 1955 in Anaheim, Walter Knott worried about what effect it would have on the farm, which until then had little competition in Orange County.
But business continued at a brisk pace, although the family did add rides and other attractions to keep pace.
Bender ran Virginia’s Gift Shop until the siblings sold Knott’s in 1997 for what industry analysts estimated at $200 million.
“The four of us are growing older. We aren’t going to be here forever,” Bender told the Orange County Register at the time of the sale.
Bender’s brother, Russell, died in May 2002. Her sister, Toni Knott Oliphant, died in January.
When the elder Knotts died -- Cordelia in 1974 and Walter in 1981 -- they left each of the children an equal share. The four formed an unusually close business and family partnership that, along with their offspring, operated Knott’s until it was sold.
Montapert, the last remaining of the Knott children, said Friday she supposed that although at first they worked together “because it was a matter of survival,” as they grew older, “none of us wanted to leave the farm to do anything else.”
For many years, the siblings met around the family dining table to discuss business, but later they met at Independence Hall -- that is, Knott’s exact replica of the famed hall.
“There are not many families that can say they worked together that many years and still be very good friends,” Montapert said.
“I attribute that to the fact that we all knew we were better off if we worked together than if we separated and went our own ways.”
Virginia Knott was born on Jan. 26, 1913.
She graduated in 1934 from Whittier College, where she was a classmate of Richard Nixon, and later she was a supporter of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.
“It’s kind of my claim to fame,” she told the Register in 1990 about knowing Nixon, who once invited her and her college classmates to the White House for tea and a tour of Air Force One.
In 2001, Bender donated $1 million to help open the Cordelia Knott Wellness Foundation, which provides education and support for breast cancer victims.
Both she and her mother had breast cancer.
Bender socialized with Orange County’s elite but was known for donning boots and a spangled Western outfit for black-tie events rather than wearing something fancier. She also often wore her boots to work at the gift shop.
“I always say, when my boots wear out, I’ll give up and retire,” she told the Register in 1994. “Fortunately, I have several pair of these boots.”
She is survived by her second husband, Paul Bender; two daughters, Maureen Reafsnyder of Newport Beach and Sherry Sherridon of Bend, Ore.; a son, Michael Reafsnyder of Tustin; and eight grandchildren.
Services will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Cordelia Knott Wellness Foundation, 230 S. Main St., Suite 210, Orange, CA 92868.