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Rachel Oliphant, 86; Philanthropist, Child of Knott's Founders

January 31, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Rachel "Toni" Oliphant, an Orange County philanthropist and a daughter of the founders of the Knott's Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park, died of congestive heart failure Wednesday at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. She was 86.

Oliphant, generally considered the most reserved of Walter and Cordelia Knott's four children, got her start in the family business by helping sell berries at a roadside stand, then worked with her sisters as a waitress in the family restaurant that eventually gave rise to the internationally known amusement park.

Those early experiences helped cement a lifelong sense of closeness among the Knott siblings, said her sister Marion Knott Montapert.

"I don't know of any family that has stayed as close as we did for 80 years," Montapert said.

"When we say we worked six days a week and all of that, we had fun doing it because all of our friends were waiting tables with us .... It was not like we were going in and punching a clock."

Oliphant was born in Pomona in 1917 as her parents struggled to homestead. They shortly gave up that enterprise and moved to the San Luis Obispo area, where they farmed until the elder Knott and a cousin joined in 1920 to run a small berry farm on rented land in Buena Park.

When the landowner decided to sell in 1927, the father bought the property and the cousin's share of the business.

Five years later, Knott persuaded local farmer Ralph Boysen to place his six new hybrid plants on Knott's farm, giving rise to the boysenberry.

In those Depression years, Cordelia Knott began making jams, jellies and pies from the boysenberries and relied on Toni and her sisters to sell them at the side of the road, setting in motion the Knotts' entry into businesses that would make them one of Orange County's most prominent families.

"The thing I remember vividly is the orange trees and ... the smell of the orange blossoms," Oliphant once said.

And although her father launched the boysenberry worldwide, it was not her favorite. "I loved black raspberries most," she said.

Oliphant met her future husband, berry man Ken Oliphant, when he made a trip to the farm to buy some fruit. They courted during badminton games and married in November 1941.

Oliphant for a time helped run a sports clothing shop on the farm, which former Knott's spokeswoman Patsy Marshall said reflected Oliphant's sense of fashion.

"She always looked like she stepped off the pages of Vogue," said Marshall, a Buena Park City Council member. "She always had a smile."

Of the four children, Toni was the least involved in the business, although her husband was instrumental in establishing the retail portion of the family empire, Knott's Berry Farm Foods. And she took part in the family's weekly meetings to discuss business, though her siblings did most of the actual work.

Oliphant, an avid golfer and bridge player, was active in, or a supporter of, a wide range of community groups, including the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries and the Corona del Mar High School Foundation.

In 2000, she donated $3 million toward a new $8.35-million Oliphant Hall Music Building on the Chapman University campus. Construction is to begin this summer and should be completed in time for the fall 2004 semester.

Oliphant's husband died in 1998. She is survived by their children, Jana Hackett and Don Oliphant; her sisters, Montapert and Virginia Knott Bender; and several grandchildren.

Instead of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Hoag Women's Pavilion at Hoag Hospital, 1 Hoag Drive, P.O. Box 6100, Newport Beach, CA 92658.

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Times staff writer Nancy Wride contributed to this report.

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