Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Review: Stack’s Liberty Ranch Collection, Vol. II

Ken Stack asked me to give him my thoughts on Volume II of his Stack’s Liberty Ranch Collection book series, published last year. I thought it might be more useful to share my thoughts with my readers also. (Full disclosure: Ken is a friend of mine. But I don't think that's swayed my opinion of his work.)

In 2020, Knott's Berry Farm (barely) celebrated it's 100th year amid the COVID-19 lockdowns. As far as I can tell, the best Knott's souvenir one could have acquired during the centennial was Ken's beautiful new book. And if you have anything more than a faint interest in the history of Knott’s, you need this book. 

Ken has one of the most amazing collections of theme park material anywhere, and he makes the most of it here, showing off highlights of his photo, ephemera and artifact collections. There’s enough explanatory text to keep the newbies from getting confused, along with a sprinkling of newly unearthed facts, but it’s largely a *visual* feast. 

If you want to read a history of Knott’s, Ken points out, you should find a copy of Merritt and Lynxwiler’s Knott’s Preserved. (An observation with which I concur.) But if you want to take it the next step and are particularly fond of theme park eye candy, you need to check out Stack’s Liberty Ranch Collection.

The bulk of Volume II is about Knott’s Berry Farm, but there are also smaller sections of the California Alligator Farm (which stood across La Palma Ave. from Knott’s) and Movieland Wax Museum (which was just down the street), and Ken has drummed the best photos I’ve ever seen of these two lesser roadside attractions.  

But back to Knott’s,…

I’ve been working with the entire Knott’s Berry Farm and Bud Hurlbut Collections at the County Archives for well over a decade now, and I sometimes get to thinking I’ve seen everything there is to see on the subject. I clearly have not. Or at least I hadn’t until I picked up this book. There are detailed colored images showing previously seldom seen or completely unseen views of favorite attractions. Everything from a color(!) photo of the little devil who ran Knott’s “volcano,” to colorful hand-painted signs from the 1940s, to a montage of tourist snapshots that reminded me just how amazing Boot Hill was when I was a kid. But better still (from my perspective) are features that were new to me. For example: The lifelike miner working inside the gold mine (near today’s GhostRider), the interior view of the “peek-ins” in the long-gone Indian Village, and the patriotic “My Credo” cards handed out by Walter Knott at the opening of his replica of Independence Hall. 

There are some gems in this book that are worth the price of admission all by themselves, including the full transcript of the Covered Wagon Show (1941) and before-during-and-after photos of Ken’s restoration of artist Paul Von Klieben’s giant portrait of Geronimo (which once hung in the Knott’s Steakhouse). 

The book also cleared up some hazy areas of my Knott’s knowledge, even after all these years. The book includes, for instance, an early 1950s map of the “farm” that shows how pedestrian traffic flowed through the property in that era. Likewise, a photo spread on the short-lived buffalo corrals finally helped me pinpoint their location in my mind’s eye. In fact, I think any Knott’s fan will find a lot of “aha” moments in this book.

There were parts of the book that made me laugh – like the over-the-top 1940s promotional piece (on page six) by Ghost Town News publisher and ex-con Nichols Field Wilson, stumping for Knott’s Berry Place (pre-1947) with all the subtlety of a carnival barker.

And there were parts that I found rather touching, including Ken’s acknowledgement of the contributions of the late Phil Brigandi and John Waite. 

Every page of the book is full color. The printing is crisp and color-correct and the paper was clearly selected to show it all off. There’s a slight sheen to the black areas when held under bright light – but that’s an observation from someone who’s curious about print processes rather than a complaint. This is a quality product in more ways than one.

And curiously, the day after reading this book, I'm left with the feeling that I've actually just *been* to (an earlier incarnation of) Knott's Berry Farm. 

If I have any complaint about the book, it’s that I want more. (For example, I’d like the map of Jungle Island to be larger, so I can see more detail.) But more is, with any luck, coming in the form of Volume III someday. 

Both volumes I and II can be purchased through Ken’s website: https://stackslibertyranch.com

No comments: