What in the world could a ghost town in the middle of the Mojave Desert and an amusement park in the middle of Orange County have in common? Surprisingly, Calico Ghost Town and Knott’s Berry Farm have many things in common, Walter Knott is the common thread of both of these Southern California attractions. Calico Ghost Town came to life in 1881 when the Silver King Mine was claimed, just eight short years later Walter Knott was born in 1889. Both the Town and Walter were born in California in San Bernardino County. When Walter was young he worked for a short time as a carpenter at Calico and his uncle John King was one of the founding partners in the mine that had his name and spurned the birth of Calico.
These memories must have stuck with young Walter because in the 1920’s after he began his Berry Farm and later the Chicken Dinner Restaurant with his wife Cordelia in the City of Buena Park, California, he built a mock ghost town to entertain the guests that came to their Farm and Restaurant. In Walter’s own words, from 1942: “Every time I have the opportunity to get away for a couple of days I like to visit the ghost towns of the west for we are continually seeking materials with which to reconstruct the ghost town here at Knott’s Berry Place. By securing a building here, part of another there, an old bar in one place or something else somewhere else we add to the picture we are attempting to portray – a composite picture of the ghost towns of the west as they appeared in ‘49 and the early ‘50’s. We are not collecting museum pieces nor is it the intention to build a museum. Our thought is to collect a town but as that is impossible we try to do the next best thing – build or reconstruct a ghost town that will be authentic and show life as it was lived in the early days”. This concept was a total success for the Knott’s and by 1950 they had a replica of a typical ghost town in Buena Park. It was at this point that Walter Purchased the entire ghost town of Calico in 1951. Walter then moved some original buildings to Knott’s Berry Farm to add to his already existing ghost town and restored and re-built other buildings at the Calico site. There are still five original buildings still standing at Calico. It was at this time there was much going on simultaneously at Calico and Knott’s, thus there were many similarities between the two places. In 1966 after fully restoring Calico Ghost Town, Walter deeded the whole town to the County of San Bernardino and it became the county regional park that it still is today.
What are these so called similarities between these two places. First let’s look at the use of the name Calico that Walter used at Knott’s after purchasing the town in 1951. Walter used the Calico name for many attractions and areas in Knott’s, some of these names were: The Calico Railroad, The Calico Mine Ride, The Calico Log Ride (on a side note, John Wayne was the first official person to ride this attraction), Calico Square, The Calico Saloon and they also had a scale model of Calico Ghost Town and a mural/painting in Saloon titled, “Saturday Night in Calico”.
A building that stands at both Calico and Knott’s is the Bottle House, this interesting building was not really a Calico remnant and it is doubtful that one ever existed there but Walter had one built at each site because bottle houses were known to exist in the old west.
There was an attraction that graced both places for a number of years, at Knott’s it was called The Haunted Shack and at Calico it is called The Mystery Shack. This attraction was a walk through experience and guests are treated to the optical illusions that characterized these attractions, water runs uphill, small children tower over their older siblings and chairs stand on two legs. The Haunted Shack at Knott’s was removed in 2000 but the Mystery Shack at Calico is still there for all to enjoy.
Knott’s is now owned by a large corporation and It might be sheer coincidence but there is a new connection between the Calico and Knott’s at Halloween. At Knott’s it is called Knott’s Scary Farm Haunt and at Calico it is called The Calico Ghost Haunt. Both places decorate for this holiday and have many special “scary” events in the month of October.
Calico and Knott’s are both great places to visit, if you want to see what Knott’s used to be like before it became such a large amusement park, visit Calico and have a great time re-living the old west.
Before or after you visit Calico a great place to eat any meal is Peggy Sues 50’s Diner, it is located at Ghost Town Road and Interstate 15, besides great food the building also has a great gift shop and Hollywood memorabilia on the walls in every room.
One more Walter Knott connection that many people do not know about are the dinosaurs that sit along Interstate 10 in Cabezon, California. The creator of these magnificent structures was Claude Bell (1897-1988). Claude was a sculptor for Walter Knott and he created most of the statues at Knott’s. To attract customers to his Wheel Inn Cafe, which opened in 1958, Dinny, the first of the Cabazon dinosaurs, was started in 1964 and created over a span of eleven years. Bell created Dinny out of spare material salvaged from the construction of nearby Interstate 10 at a cost of $300,000. The building that was to become Dinny was built from steel framework over which an expanded metal grid was formed in the shape of a dinosaur, all of it was then covered with coats of concrete. Bell was quoted in 1970 as saying the 45-foot high, 150-foot long Dinny was “the first dinosaur in history, so far as I know, to be used as a building”. Bell worked on the project independently, no construction companies or contractors were involved in the construction. It is rumored that the task of painting Dinny was completed by a friend of Bell’s in exchange for one dollar and a case of Dr. Pepper. A second dinosaur, Mr. Rex, was constructed near Dinny in 1981. A third wolly mammoth sculpture and a prehistoric garden were drafted, but never completed due to Bell’s death in 1988. Other creations of Bell for Walter Knott were life size sculptures of a miner and his burro, they were scattered throughout Knott’s. One of these sculptures today still stands in front of the Wheel Inn Restaurant in Cabezon and one still stands at Calico Ghost Town.
As you can see, Walter Knott was a busy man and had accomplished a lot in his lifetime, his fraternal twin children, Calico Ghost Town and Knott’s Berry Farm stand as an example of his fortitude, vision and hard work.
Take It Easy – Mojave