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What Kind of Multimillionaires Make Their Own Deviled-Ham Sandwiches?

The Knott Family Legacy

July 15, 2001|NANCY WRIDE

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.

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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.

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