Addressing Gender in Old West Theme Parks

This is the second post in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Women’s History Month.

Saloon Girls
Statues of popular saloon girls at Knott’s Berry Farm

By Amanda Tewes, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

One of the benefits of month-long observances like Women’s History Month is that it reminds historians to sit down and think about how gender plays into their work. I am not a gender historian by training, though I have long been interested in gendered spaces.

My current research is pulling me towards the cultural history of Old West theme parks in California, a topic rich with implications for identity, popular culture, and nostalgia in the Golden State. And while I have closely examined the identity politics involved with the creation and maintenance of these sites, I have largely—and rather unintentionally—ignored the meaning of gender in these parks. How could I have missed this?

For one, the theme parks I am researching were financed, designed, and operated by men. Considering that these particular tourist attractions popped up between the 1930s and 1960s, this fact does not seem surprising.

Yet another reason I bypassed gender in my analysis of these parks is that despite their advertisement as family-friendly destinations, the sites were overtly male-dominated spaces. Most of the “characters” on the avenues of Old West theme parks were men: sheriffs, bandits, and singing cowboys. Additionally, the majority of attractions — hands-on gold mining and train rides — spoke to what were almost exclusively male occupations in the nineteenth century. In many ways, these representations of men served to underscore both the rough-and-tumble social space of the Wild West, as well as the inherent masculinity of gun slinging prospectors and desperados.

But what about women? Where is their place in the reincarnations of Old West life found in heritage tourism? To edge closer to the answer, I offer an example from one particular site: Knott’s Berry Farm in the Southern California city of Buena Park.

Knott’s Berry Farm is a unique example of heritage tourism in California. The park was once a real, fruit-producing farm specializing in the hybrid plant that the owner, Walter Knott, called a Boysenberrry. Setting up his fruit stand and farm as a roadside attraction, Knott turned to his wife, Cordelia Hornaday Knott, to supplement the family income during the lean days of the Depression by opening a tea shop and later a restaurant — Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. The sizeable crowds waiting in line for Mrs. Knott’s “real Southern chicken dinners” in part prompted the family to begin building a Western-themed Ghost Town, which later grew into a well-known Southern California amusement park.

In my original analysis of Knott’s Berry Farm, I took special note of Cordelia Knott, trying to find her place within the tier of management at the Farm. I concluded: The Chicken Dinner Restaurant may have been a family affair, but this was one area of the Farm where Cordelia took the lead. Several of the Restaurant’s waitresses remember Cordelia as the heart of the operation: she inspected every meal that left the kitchen, insisted on professional and clean wait staff, and was “the iron hand” behind the scenes. While her kitchen domain was clearly a gendered space, more than one employee remembers Cordelia as the mastermind of the Restaurant: “Mrs. Knott seemed…to be the dominating part of the team.”

Indeed, Mrs. Knott’s efforts in the Restaurant were — and remain — central to the very identity of Knott’s Berry Farm. However, in focusing on Mrs. Knott’s work outside the park, I missed some very obvious gender analysis inside the park. For at Knott’s Berry Farm, the female space of the Restaurant quickly transformed into the masculine streets of the Old West as patrons wandered several hundred feet to Ghost Town.

Perhaps because of the rugged manliness visitors’ found in Ghost Town, even the rare instances of female characters could be seen through the male gaze. For the main female performers in Knott’s Berry Farm were the dancers at the Calico Saloon. While saloon girls continue be found in almost every version of an Old West tourist site — even Walt Disney’s vision of wholesome family fun — these cases trade historical fact for a romantic image of ruffled skirts and dancing prowess. And although Walter Knott’s moral code precluded the sale of alcohol in his park (he served cavity-inducing Boysenberry juice instead), even his vision of the Old West required women to portray characters barely veiled as prostitutes, dancing scantily-clad before audiences of all ages.

Representations of women in Old West tourism have often been quite unfavorable. Whether they are remembered as prostitutes or bandits, they appear as the exception to the rule in what is very obviously a male space. Western women as farmers, businesswomen, and helpmates do not picture into these theme parks. Understandably, such historical figures do not speak to the romantic vision of the West upon which many of these tourist destinations have been founded. Indeed, establishing Knott’s Berry Farm — a Depression-era theme park that looked back favorably to the optimism and scarcity of the mid-nineteenth century — required a certain amount of myth making. However, contemporary historians must work to see beyond the romance and ask questions about gender roles and politics in these spaces that on the surface appear solely male.

Relevant Links:

The Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Nelson Limerick

“The Internet Marketing of Disney Theme Parks,” a gender analysis

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1 comment
  1. I spent some time in the early stages of my diss. research looking at the tourist literature for Western ghost towns, such as Bodie, Cal. It would be interesting to see if a real location like that is any more even-handed when it comes to gender, or whether state-run sites are any better or worse than commercial sites. Oddly enough, the only time I ever visited a Western ghost town, Shaniko, Oregon, the one person I remember is a woman using a foot-powered loom.

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