Imagine you’ve given birth to your first child and your hard-working husband, who has a good-paying job in the city, wants to exchange his starched white shirts for a job “working the land.” Would you support his farfetched dream?
What if the 160 acres your husband wanted to homestead was in a place neither of you had ever been – 25 miles east of Barstow in the Mojave Desert? And the two-bedroom adobe house on the land had no running water or indoor bathroom?
How would you hold up amid the constant 100-degree temperatures and the relentless sand storms that made it impossible to keep your humble house clean? How would you react in the wake of frequent windstorms that uprooted your precious plantings from the ground, ruining your only source of sustenance?
What if you were now pregnant with your second child and your husband told you he was taking a second job as a carpenter in Calico, a ghost town about 35 miles away to help make ends meet, leaving you alone for days at a time, with your closest neighbor living a half-mile away. Would you still stand by your man?
What if, after three years of toil and privation, your husband decides to abandon his farming experiment in the desert only to take a job as a sharecropper in the San Joaquin Valley, splitting the harvest with the owner of the land? You could keep the surplus … if there was a surplus. Would you have gone along?
What if your husband was offered his old city job back in Pomona but he turned it down to lease land with a partner in Orange County to try his hand at farming once again? Would you have reached your breaking point?
Would you have finally snapped when, lacking enough food to feed your now four children, you decide to butcher the family pet goat Betsy to serve for dinner. As the plates of food are passed around, you see the tears in your children’s eyes before you finally decide to remove the plates.
After farming the leased land for five years, your husband decides to buy the parcel, agreeing to pay twice as much as you and he had paid for renting the land before. Your husband’s partner thinks the price is far too high and wants no part of the deal. Do you try to talk some sense into your hard-headed spouse who appears more determined than ever to make a go of it?
Well, remarkably, this woman stood shoulder to shoulder with her husband through all these decisions. She and he were both self-sufficient. He had lost his father when he was 6 years old and she had lost her mother when she was 11. They knew hard times, but they also knew how to get through them together.
With the arrival of the Great Depression, the couple hung on by their fingernails and her apron strings. Instead of watching their unsold fruit spoil, she made preserves and pies out of it and he built a tea room next to the fruit market, where she and her children served hot homemade biscuits and jams.
Frequently, customers, while standing in line, would inquire about a smell coming from the couple’s home?
The husband answered, “That’s my wife frying chicken for our dinner.”
The customer asked, “Is that on the menu in the tea room?”
The husband explained that his wife was only willing to cook for the tea rooom to make ends meet.
But after hearing the constant inquiries about that delicious smell out back, the wife told her husband to bring her some nice three-and-a-half-pound chickens to fry up and her children to pull out the family’s wedding china and linen napkins and set the table for eight people.
At that table on that special day in 1934, eight people paid 65 cents each to enjoy a meal of cherry rhubarb, green salad with French dressing, and then fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, boiled cabbage with bits of ham, and hot biscuits served with jam. Berry pie slices were served for dessert, along with ice cream or sherbet.
That’s how it all began for Cordelia and Walter Knott. By the end of summer in 1934, Cordelia and her helpers were cooking and serving an average of 85 chicken dinners a day. The line for her dinners kept growing and growing until it reached what is now Beach Blvd. in Buena Park. On Thanksgiving Day in 1937, the Knotts served 1,774 dinners, 355 pies and 8,890 biscuits. This was years before Colonel Sanders and fast food were available.
On Mother’s Day in 1960, they served 8,735 dinners, all made from scratch. Today, Cordelia’s Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant serves an average of 1.5 million dinners a year.
While Cordelia manned the kitchen, Walter, stubborn as ever, kept right on farming, although he would stop whatever he was doing when Cordelia promptly called him for dinner at 5 p.m. Although the chicken dinners were born out of necessity and involved quite a bit of good fortune, it wasn’t all luck. Walter had developed a reputation for being able to make just about anything grow. After all, he had nurtured and given life to plants in the desert. So when Rudolph Boysen of Anaheim brought Walter six scraggly, dying vines, Walter nursed them back to life and called this new cross between a loganberry, blackberry and red raspberry a “Boysenberry.”
On the success of that bigger, plumper Boysenberry and Cordelia’s chicken dinners, the Knotts built Knott’s Berry Farm, when Disneyland was still a twinkle in the eye of that other Walter (Walt Disney).
Add one more item to the Knotts’ recipe for success: Although Cordelia was more cautious than her husband when approaching new ideas and ventures, she fully subscribed to his lifelong belief that with hard work and earnest efforts you can achieve your dreams.
His credo took up all of one sentence but a lifetime of application and persistence:
“Whatever we vividly imagine,
ardently desire, sincerely believe,
and enthusiastically act upon …
must inevitably come to pass.”
PS I wish I had more time and space to share how I came upon this inspiring story about the Knotts. All I can say is that when you walk outside your door to start your day, you never know whom you’re going to meet. The key is getting the courage to keep walking out that door no matter how deep the darkness.