Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Devil went down to Buena Park

Today's post is about a place full of fire and lava run by a guy with horns on his head. Naturally, I'm talking about the old volcano at Knott's Berry Farm.

The sign above the infernal little fellow shown above reads, "This is the appratus that controls the volcano. It was made by Henry Legari, and is operated by the gentleman turning the crank. (Sound effect by Bob Hilliard.)" A wide view -- probably around 1950 -- is seen below.
Throughout the 1930s, Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant had grown in popularity and size. At the end of the 1930s, the latest expansion gave diners an underwhelming view of an irrigation standpipe that was part of Walter Knott's farming operations. Ever the problem-solver, Walter figured out a solution: Turn the standpipe into a 20-foot-tall volcano! In addition to hiding the standpipe, the volcano would also add to the growing list of diversions available to guests waiting for their turn at a chicken dinner.

The volcano was built in 1939 at a cost of $600. The lava rock was hauled in from Pisgah Mountain, near the Knott's old homestead in Newberry Springs. Desert landscaping was added. So were signs, reading, "Danger, keep out!" and "Only active volcano in Southern California. Moved in from the Mojave Desert complete—and has been erupting faithfully ever since." Appropriate noises and steam eminated from the volcano. (The photo below shows the volcano in the 1940s.)

One of the volcano's most peculiar attributes was a strange mechinism of cranks, belts and motors that seemed to be operated by a little articulated devil figure (seen above). Some say the devil was added in the 1950s or 1960s, but historian Phil Brigandi points out an article in the Santa Ana Register from late 1939 that mentions him: "One must stop and read the description of how Mephistopheles does his 'devilish work.' By a little study you can follow the work of the many wheels that 'run' the eruptions. The latest radio amplifying set is used with real sound effects such as one hears in many radio programs... Through all these many turns and twists of the 'devil' the much talked of Inferno turns itself loose on the watching public...."
During World War II, a rumor began to circulate that microphones were hidden under some of the tables at the restaurant, and that an antenna inside the volcano was broadcasting the conversations of visiting servicemen to enemy listening posts. The FBI came out to investigate and peer down into the volcano. They found nothing, of course, but it made for a great newspaper story. (I've often wondered if having his patriotism called into question during the war had any effect on Walter Knott's ultra-patriotic stance in later years.)

In 1952, as the restaurant and surrounding shops continued to expand, the volcano had to be moved. It wound up near Marion and Toni Knott's Sport Shop, not far from the Gold Mine. The new location allowed the volcano to be connected to the Farm's steam plant, which provided an impressive blast of steam with each "eruption."
The color postcard image above shows the relocated volcano as it looked around 1960. Note the added cowboy statue.

The volcano and its diabolical control box were demolished in 1998. I've heard the rumor from numerous people that the devil ended up "going home" with someone who used to work for Knott's. I haven't been able to substantiate this rumor, but the FBI hasn't debunked it yet, either.


Anonymous said...

I was just chatting about this devil guy on a Flickr post a few days ago. I always remember ol red and his volcanoe closer to the sisters shops and in the days Walter Knott could still be seen walking around His Berry Farm.
My Grandfather knew him very well and he discussed his plans for a ghost town attraction people could look at while waiting for a table at the chicken dinner restaurant.
Many years later when I was a curator at the now defunct Anaheim Museum I wanted so much to have an exhibit on early KBF, too bad the museum was in the wrong city.
Keep on bringing back OC history!

Major Pepperidge said...

Wow, what a great post. I also love that ridiculous rumor about the microphones under the tables, etc. So dumb! But I guess it just goes to show how paranoid everybody was, perhaps understandably after Pearl Harbor.

Chris Jepsen said...

By the way, thanks to Phil Brigandi for discovering that the "devil" is even older than we thought. I have corrected the text accordingly, citing my source.

Chris Merritt said...

Hi Chris - Great post! I have in my records that the devil went along with the pipe in November of 1939, if anyone wants to be that anal about it...

Davelandweb said...

Thanks for this post, Chris - what a cool little oddity; too bad they couldn't keep it going!

Merritt - I can't believe you don't have the actual day and time!

Stanley Matthews said...

So glad for this article!
Only ever saw the volcano in its second location, but I remember the devil and his lair being a lot more finished out - a fully sculpted figure in a detailed scene. I also recall seeing him from a side view and not head on like in these shots. Could the devil have been refreshed in the 50s giving rise to the rumor that that's when it was built?
Anyone have a picture of the later look of the volcano devil?

Anonymous said...

I am saddened to hear that he, the Devil is gone. I looked forward to my family's annual road trips to Southern California in the 60s and the devil was what I loved the most. He will be missed; I would watch him crank the gears and the boom sound that followed, he would pause then crank again as stem came out of the opening of the volcano, it was magical...

Barbara Radisavljevic said...

I used to go there a lot during my childhood in the 1940's and 1950's but somehow I missed this. Maybe the adults in my life thought I was too young to see it. But we ate at the Chicken House at least once a month in those days of my early childhood.