By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Travel Editor
I suppose it’s understandable if folks overlook buildings and decor at the major theme parks we have here in Southern California. After all, these days the parks bill themselves as “resorts,” with the latest and greatest (to some, the most insane) rides and sparkling attractions.
It’s for just that reason that a humble structure caught my eye during a Labor Day visit to Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park. In the Ghost Town section of the park sits the classic one-room school house, and if you simply give it a passing glance, it’s easy to guess it is a re-creation, constructed to fit the surrounding Old West theme.
To my delight, that guess would be quite wrong.
“It’s very real,” said Steve Keesler, a Knott’s docent who holds a wealth of knowledge about the old School House. “It was built by homesteaders from Iowa back in 1879. They first started the school in 1875, because they wanted their children to have an education. They wanted their children to do better than they themselves had.”
The 18-by-24-foot classroom is a true-to-life voyage into America’s frontier days, when communities sprang up in seemingly inhospitable parts of the country. One such place was a four-square-mile plot of land near Beloit, Kansas, that the farming community called their own through federal legislation crafted to encourage expansion of the young nation.
“In 1862, Congress passed and President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act,” Keesler explained. “If you were 18 years old or head of household, you could homestead 160 acres, or quarter section, of land.”
When the school in Beloit closed in 1947, Walter Knott was busy developing his family’s long-successful Buena Park berry farm into a visitor’s destination. The farm was already famous for his wife’s fried chicken dinners and the erupting “volcano” he installed to amuse patrons. As the nationwide fascination with the cowboy culture was taking off, Knott decided to build an Old West “ghost town” and when he caught wind of a classic one-room school going on the auction block in the heart of the country in 1951, he saw an opportunity.
“He had someone who lived back there bid for him,” Keeler explained. “That man actually told the others who came to bid that day who Walter Knott was, what Knott’s Berry Farm was all about and how Ghost Town was being developed. Mr. Knott wanted to have a living museum, and he was building a western town here, so everyone else backed out of the auction, and he bought it for $253.50.”
The school, along with the playground equipment and even the outhouse (!) were carefully dismantled and trucked to Buena Park. It was rebuilt on the site where it has remained for 62 years.
As it turns out, this in not the only historic school house at Knott’s. Just a few steps away is the tiny Rivera School. Constructed on what is now Slauson Avenue in 1868, it is used today as a museum of reptiles, insects and animal physiology.
As the decades have passed, the real value in Knott’s purchase from Kansas may well be the contents of the structure, all of which were included in the purchase price. There’s a coal-burning pot-belly stove, portraits of Lincoln and George Washington, and perhaps most impressively, a first-edition copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the bookshelf.
The rows of wooden student desks and chalkboard slates are remarkably intact. The walls are adorned with photos of past teachers, report cards and vintage instructional charts. And in the rear of the room is a small Beethoven pump organ.
“The community would hold Sunday services here, and they could remove the floor runners and desks and have square dancing,” Keesler said. “This was the biggest building in the four-square-mile area, serving about 16 families.
“Think of all the things we think are necessities – cell phones, Internet, electricity,” he told a group of seated kids, one of whom occasionally was glancing at messages on her iPhone. “These folks had none of that. You did what you could do to entertain each other. If someone in town could play violin, he did so for the square dance.”
Keesler also explained the history of the dunce cap for the visiting youngsters, how it was used for students who hadn’t properly done their homework and its history of being named for the 13th-century man of the same name who wore a conical hat. He said in the heyday of this old school house, parents labored to financially support the school. Not behaving in the classroom could land a student in big trouble at school and hotter water at home.
“After working the fields and mules all day, Dad’s tired and hungry, and he doesn’t want to hear that Johnny was on the dunce seat at school,” Keesler warned. “He would take the board of education and apply it to the seat of understanding.”
The classroom is filled with far gentler reminders of a simpler time. Written prominently in fluid cursive on the blackboard is a timeless phrase, “Politeness is to do and say the kindest things in the kindest way.”
Keeseler has taken this motto to heart, and it shows in his kindly approach to the visitors who trickle in to marvel at the history before them and ask questions. He said this job is hardly work at all.
“I’m retired, but I get to come to Knott’s Berry Farm every day and I don’t have to pay to get in. I come in and meet the most wonderful people, from all over the world. And then, they force me to take my salary. It’s wonderful.”