Walter Marvin Knott (December 11, 1889 – December 3, 1981) was an American farmer who created the Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in California and made Knott’s Berry Farm jelly.
Knott was born in San Bernardino, California, and grew up in Pomona, California. In the 1920s, Knott was a somewhat unsuccessful farmer whose fortunes changed when he nursed several abandoned berry plants back to health. The hybrid boysenberry, named after its creator, Rudolph Boysen, was a cross between a blackberry, red raspberry and loganberry.
The huge berries were a hit, and the Knott family sold berries, preserves and pies from a Buena Park, California roadside stand. In 1934, Knott’s wife Cordelia (née Hornaday, January 23, 1890 – April 12, 1974) began serving fried chicken dinners, and within a few years, lines outside the restaurant were often several hours long.
To entertain the waiting crowds, Walter built a Ghost Town in 1940, using buildings relocated from Old West towns. Even after Disneyland opened in 1955 a mere 8 miles (13 km) away, Knott’s Berry Farm continued to thrive. Walt Disney and Walter Knott are rumored to have had a cordial relationship; it is known that they each visited the other’s park, and they were both members of the original planning council for Children’s Hospital of Orange County.
Early additions to the farm included the Ghost Town & Calico Railway, a narrow gauge railroad in the Ghost Town area, a San Francisco cable car, a Pan-for-Gold attraction, the Calico Mine Train dark ride and the Timber Mountain Log Ride log flume ride. In 1968, the Knott family fenced the farm, charged admission for the first time, and Knott’s Berry Farm officially became an amusement park.
Because of his interest in American pioneer history, Knott purchased and restored the real silver mining ghost town of Calico, California in 1951. As a child Walter spent a lot of time in Calico living with his uncle. During World War I he helped to build a silver mill in Calico. This period in his life influenced his decision to buy the town and restore it. In 1966, he deeded Calico to San Bernardino County, California.
Walter remained active in the operation of Knott’s Berry Farm until the death of Cordelia in 1974, at which point he turned his attention toward political causes, leaving day-to-day park operations to his children. He supported conservative Republican causes.
He died in Buena Park, CA, and, with his beloved Cordelia, is buried at Loma Vista Cemetery in Fullerton, California. He is survived by his son, Russell, and three daughters, Marion Knott, Virginia Bender and Toni Oliphant.
Walter Knott appeared on the December 23, 1954 episode of “You Bet Your Life”, hosted by Groucho Marx
The Knott family no longer owns the theme park; it was sold to the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company. Additionally, The J.M. Smucker Co. now owns the “Knott’s Berry Farm” brand of jam and jelly (purchased from ConAgra Foods in 2008).