He Who Tends the Tree

Ann Terrill is a California housewife.

The preservation of freedom is a matter of individual responsibility. It consists, basically, of taking one’s own destiny in hand, coura­geously assuming the responsibili­ties and fortunes thereof. The chances of rewarding achievement from such a course are limited only by the individual’s capabili­ties and efforts. Thus, the climate of freedom, with its economic sys­tem of competitive private enter­prise, provides the world’s most practical and foolproof road to riches. For, "he who tends the tree" does indeed pick the fruit.

The American level of living offers generous proof of this. A fine example of the fruit of extra­ordinarily industrious "tree tend­ing" covers 200 acres of Southern California farm land and is known simply as Knott’s Berry Farm. The world-famous show place is noted for its substantial, but unpretentious chicken dinner; its berry products; and its Ghost Town, the life-sized replica of an old frontier town, which amounts to a well-stocked museum. The farm repre­sents the determined efforts of Walter Knott, a shrewdly ingen­ious farmer, and his wife, Cor­delia, to transform dreams into reality.

In 1920, Orange County, like neighboring Los Angeles County, gave little indication of today’s teeming activity. That year, the Knotts took their courage and their cash in hand, signed the lease on a ten-acre plot of barren farm land near Buena Park, and went to work. They were willing to study, endure privation, and labor as many long hours as necessary to achieve their goal: the finest berry farm in California. Knott, son of a Methodist minister, was a farmer at heart, determined to become successful and independent in his chosen career. Severe losses suffered in a rugged three-year period of desert homesteading had been recouped with a similarly laborious stint of tenant farming. Indeed, the thrift and resource­fulness of the couple had enabled them to acquire a small nest egg. Using it to finance a berry farm seemed the ideal way out of their financial woods.

On the day Walter and his family drew their venerable, some­what battered Model T to a halt before their investment, they were broke, but confident. They rented a relic of a house which lacked such conveniences as plumbing. But the monthly rental of seven dollars overrode such considera­tions. During the next seven years, while they wrestled with every­thing from bad weather to fluctu­ating prices, it was home to the Knott family.

Creating a Market

Those first years were marked with financial loss and aching muscles. But the industrious fam­ily never gave up. Walter knew the formula for success. It was simple: a bigger, better crop; attractive packaging; competitive pricing; a margin for profit. The trouble came in translating the ideal into practice. It eventually took the concentrated efforts of the entire family to manage it.

Since the most consistent fea­ture of the wholesale market price was its unsteadiness, the Knotts decided to provide their own mar­ket. Walter knocked together a berry stand and continued looking for a superior berry with which to beat competition. His search added the Youngberry to the im­posing variety of plants the canny farmer had assembled "to provide a berry for every taste."

The Farm came to depend al­most entirely on automobile traf­fic for its trade, the children flag­ging down customers with large stalks of rhubarb. Everyone who was able worked in the fields and at selling. Today, the original berry stand sits on the grounds of the Farm, put there by the auto­motive age. But it didn’t happen the way Knott expected.

A nearby oil-land boom forced the Knotts into moving or buying. They bought—or rather, obligated themselves to purchase the farm—at boom prices, involving in­terest equal to twice the amount of rent they had been paying. It was then that Knott erected the farm­house which he and his wife still occupy. But before their payments began, the crash of 1929 and sub­sequent depression forced them into additional adjustments.

At a time when relief doles were swelling, businesses were failing, and the cost of berry production far exceeded the sales price, Walter and his wife found them­selves unable to meet their obliga­tions. All their savings were gone—spent for construction and equipment. Characteristically, the energetic family merely redoubled their efforts. They didn’t want charity; nor did they see any rea­son to accept it. Cordelia began making jam and jellies with the surplus fruit—but no one could afford them. In desperation, she opened a small dining room, serv­ing hot rolls and coffee with her jams. This helped entice her cus­tomers into taking some home—but not enough. So she added her now-famous berry pie to the menu.

Meanwhile, in 1932, Walter had tracked down and rescued from oblivion the Boysenberry. He took the original straggly bushes from a clump of weeds where their dis­couraged developer, Rudolph Boy­sen, had abandoned them. It took Knott a year to nurse the seedlings back to health and subsequent fame. But in promoting the lush fruit, he climbed out of his debts into a fortune. In 1935, the first root stock went on sale. Poor re­sults from an advertising agency’s efforts caused Knott to write his own ads, couched in simple terms and directed to other farmers. The response cleared his stock in rec­ord time, and by 1940, the berry was well-established in popularity.

Chicken Dinners Added

By that time, the Knotts also were well-established in the res­taurant business. One day in 1934, Cordelia tried a few chicken din­ners in her tearoom, hoping thus to increase the family’s desper­ately needed income. The first day, she cooked and sold eight chicken dinners. Within weeks, the tiny dining room was swamped, and from it grew the Knott Chicken Dinner Restaurant. The children waited table, and more help was hired. But the crowds kept pouring in, and the waiting lines of hungry guests grew longer. With reluc­tance, Walter borrowed money to double the size of the room, think­ing to solve the problem. Today, the bewildered but grateful family is still adding on, and still waiting for things to taper off. The famil­iar lines seem like a permanent fix­ture though the chicken dinner restaurants now accommodate nearly 1,000 guests at once, and the combined facilities of the Steak House and the Ghost Town Grill can handle almost as many.

From the beginning, Knott had believed that control of both pro­duction and marketing facilities would spell success. Delegated re­sponsibility means delegated prof­its, whether the profit be measured in money or in freedom. In a real way, he was achieving his goal. Not only was he his own producer, processor, and supplier; he made his own market, too.

In 1936, some adjoining farm land was purchased, and most of it was planted to berries. But one section presented a problem, in­volving a large and worthless area of alkaline soil, long used as a dump. Adept at making the most of adversity, Walter Knott couldn’t allow such waste to continue. The thoughtful host decided to make of it a pleasant spot for his wait­ing guests. Today, the dump is a lake, with an island, trees, and grass. The Farm became a show place; and as trade increased, shops and concessions were added, making it a top tourist attraction. Knott anticipated the need for in­creased parking facilities. So he collected rare, exotic, and unusual specimen trees from around the world and planted them in rows 60 feet apart among the berry plants nearest the restaurant. Today grateful guests park in a 60-acre botanical garden. More than 200 varieties of trees provide a wel­come oasis from the California sun.

Ghost Town

Ghost Town had its beginnings in 1940 and is not yet completed. It is a monument to the past, and the Knotts, who come from pioneer stock, have a special love for it. It keeps vivid the memory of tales told by their forebears of bitter hardship, adventure, and courage as they sought "opportunity and not security." Surveying the in­creasing dependency of the Ameri­can people on their government, the self-reliant farmer decided to present all corners with an accu­rate picture of those days—to re­mind them of their heritage and of their ancestors who "subdued a continent, and without govern­ment aid." Each year, something new is added; and although the Knotts never intended the Town to be its present size, the life-sized museum is still growing.

It contains everything from a church to saloons which dispense berry juice; from a little red schoolhouse to a narrow gauge railway; and, of course, Boot Hill. Every feature is authentic in de­tail, and some, like the schoolhouse and the railway, are genuine an­tiques in themselves. They consti­tute a priceless collection of Americana, well worth anyone’s time and effort to see. Because Knott feels the past belongs to everyone, he provides free parking and admission to the grounds. All but a few of the exhibits, plus some activities in adjoining areas of the Farm, are free. It is possi­ble to spend the entire day at Knott’s with little or no expense.

The Farm, an old-fashioned family-owned enterprise, is run by the active participation of all mem­bers of the family, including some of the nine Knott grandchildren. Employees are valued friends and recently received $330,000 as their share of the year’s profits. It is not unusual to find the cheerful Cordelia pinch-hitting for any one of her workers, called out on an important date. Although the Farm uses over 900 full-time em­ployees, Walter knows most of them by name. There is no labor problem at Knott’s, and jobs are coveted.

18,000 Visitors Daily

Some years ago, a suggestion was rejected to cash in on the ap­parent craze for Mrs. Knott’s fried chicken with a chain of chicken dinner restaurants. The family’s decision to expand the Farm in­stead, probably assured its present astounding success, for the unas­suming family has touched a deeply responsive chord in the American heart. The powerful magnet, which draws some 18,000 visitors daily, is the atmosphere of the place. Walter Knott has care­fully presented an unforgettable taste of the wholesomeness that typifies America at her best. When they leave, guests take with them the nostalgic memory of the golden years as exemplified by solid, un­pretentious worth; uncomplicated freedom and the rugged humor, adventure, and pathos that went with it; and Sunday Chicken Din­ner. And they return, again and again—from every state in the Union, and from the far corners of the earth. This quiet man, whose love for the past made him spend some 19 years recreating it, has unwittingly cashed in on the ur­gent hunger of a nation losing touch with itself.

A Small Part in the Creation

Today, at 69, Walter Knott is still planting trees—a park full of them. He recently converted 60 acres of valuable berry fields to the purpose. Eventually, lakes, playgrounds, and, of course, trees, will stand as his gift to the teem­ing populace which has engulfed the once-rural area. This is the man, an eminently successful one, who declares:

"I have many things to be thankful for. But I believe the one I appreciate the most is that the Creator has trusted me to have a small, small part in the creation."

It is the fashion now to bargain for guaranteed handouts—for the harvest—with no regard for the welfare of the tree itself. But guarantees based on neglect come high. In contrast to this pursuit of security-by-decree, Walter Knott secured his own enviable position. And his attitude makes it clear how he got there.

He, like his pioneer forefathers, sought, not security, but oppor­tunity; not handouts, but ways in which to render service. Assuredly, his security depended on how well he "tended his trees." But in his industrious hands, it amounted to a gilt-edged guaranty for the fu­ture. Admittedly, Knott and his family paid with hard work and diligent adherence to high prin­ciples for their success, but these qualities are dividends in themselves. If the achievements of a lifetime dissolved before break­fast, lunch time would find the re­sourceful clan hard at work, re­building things. For the Knotts’ best security lies, not in what they own, but in what they are.

 

***

How To Guarantee a Favorable Balance of Trade

Here is an idea that has remained popular in all countries for the past 500 years: The people of a nation are better off when they export more products and services than they import. It is called a "favorable balance of trade"—and it is especially popu­lar in the United States today.

In 1846, the leader of the French free traders, Frederic Bastiat, offered this satire on the "favorable balance of trade" idea: A merchant shipped $50,000 worth of French goods to New Orleans and sold them for a profit of $17,000. He invested his $67,000 in U.S. cotton and brought it back to France. Thus the customhouse records showed that the French nation had im­ported more than it exported—an unfavorable balance of trade. Very bad.

At a later date, the merchant decided to repeat that personally profitable transaction. But just outside the harbor, his ship was sunk by a storm. Thus the customhouse records showed that the French nation had exported more products than it had imported—a favorable balance of trade. Very good.

But since storms at sea are undependable, perhaps the safest governmental policy would be to record the exports at the customhouse and then pitch them in the ocean. In that way, the nation could guarantee itself the profit that results from a favorable balance of trade.

Extracted by Dean Russell from Oeuvres Completes de Frederic Bastiat, Vol. IV, Paris: Guillaumin & Co., 1863. pp. 55-56.

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