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.