Knott’s Berry Farm’s Hidden Wrestling History

Tucked away in the center of Buena Park’s Knott’s Berry Farm is the Wilderness Dance Hall. Unbeknownst to most of the thousands of theme parks visitors who pass by it, for over two decades the barn played an important role in the history of boxing and pro-wrestling in Southern California. Prior to being moved to its current location, the Wilderness Dance Hall was located in Burbank and was known as Jefferies Barn.

James J. Jefferies was born in Carroll, Ohio on April 15, 1875. When he was around seven years old, his family moved cross-country to the Cypress Park area of Los Angeles.  As a teenager, Jefferies dropped out of school to become a boilermaker. Around that same time, Jefferies discovered boxing. He joined the East Side Club in Boyle Heights and later the Los Angeles Athletic Club. At the age of 17, Jefferies was already over six-feet tall and weighed over 220 pounds.

Despite some early amateur boxing victories at the age of 17, his mother didn’t like him boxing so he didn’t join the professional ranks until he was 21. In 1896, Jefferies made his pro debut in San Francisco, knocking out Dan Long in the second round. A few months later, he knocked out Hank Griffin in the 17th round at Hazard’s Pavilion in Los Angeles.

In 1899, at the age of 24, Jefferies won the world heavyweight title from Bob Fitzsimmons at Coney Island in Brooklyn by knock-out. Jefferies was so dominant in the ring, he ran out of opponents who could challenge him and he retired with an undefeated record in 1905.

In 1904, a friend of Jefferies named O’Connor, sold him 107 acres of land in Burbank for $2,000 plus Jefferies assuming the $8,000 debt O’Connor still owed on the land. Only 10 acres of the land was in cultivation, the rest was sagebrush and sand. He also invested in a mining venture and owned a Spring Street bar in downtown Los Angeles.

When Jefferies was world heavyweight champion, black boxers were not able to challenge for the world heavyweight title. That changed in 1908, when Jack Johnson fought for and won the title. Having been deprived of the matchup previously due to the prejudices of the time, in 1910 Jefferies was talked into coming out of retirement for a match with Johnson.

Billed as the “Fight of the Century”, Jefferies and Johnson met on July 4, 1910 in Reno, NV. While the fight was scheduled for 45 three-minute rounds, Jefferies, who was out of shape after a six-year layoff, was taking such a beating that his manager stopped the fight in the 15th, giving Johnson a technical knockout. Jefferies would later remark “I couldn’t have beaten Johnson on my best day.”

Jack Johnson standing over a fallen James Jefferies in their 1910 bout.

After the fight against Johnson, Jefferies would develop an additional 93 acres of land and planted alfalfa. When the price of alfalfa plummeted, rather than harvest the crop, Jefferies put cattle on the land to eat the alfalfa. Before long he was raising thoroughbred bulls and selling them to Mexico and Central America for $1000 a head.

Jeffries would also build a large ranch home and a barn Victory Boulevard and Buena Vista Street intersect today. The ranch house and barn were on opposite sides of Buena Vista, with the house on the southeast corner and the barn on the southwest corner.

In 1929 Jefferies cleared some space in his barn to add a ring and began training a few protégées to box. In 1931 he added a dormitory for a dozen fighters and began to turn his old barn into a recreational hall and boxing ring.  Jefferies Barn was the location of the biggest fights in the area, the annual Golden Glove tournaments sponsored by The Los Angeles Times, beer companies, and local police departments. Pro-wrestling events would soon join boxing at Jefferies Barn.

The biggest wrestling stars of the day would all appear at Jefferies Barn for their weekly pro-wrestling events. Gorgeous George wrestled there as did Baron Michele Leone. Enrique Torres would defend the Los Angeles version of the world title there, Lou Thesz made several NWA Worlds Heavyweight title defenses in the building, and even Ed “Strangler” Lewis wrestled at Jefferies Barn late in his career.

In January 1950, KNBH (which is now KNBC, channel 4) entered into an agreement to broadcast the weekly Saturday night wrestling events from Jefferies Barn. The local Lincoln-Mercury dealer would pay $1,500 a week to sponsor the broadcasts ($16,087.53 in 2018 adjusted for inflation).

Jefferies Barn in Burbank.
Credit USC Digital Library

While the building reportedly could hold 1,100 fans for boxing and wrestling events, Jefferies made plans to upgrade the barn to be even bigger and better. The city of Burbank denied his permits, however, citing noise and parking problems. The denial likely ultimately saved the barn, as Jefferies died on March 3, 1953. Jefferies’ death ended live events at the bar and the land was sold. In order to make room for a union hall to be built at the location, the barn was sold to Walter Knott in 1955 and was disassembled and moved to its current location at Knott’s Berry Farm.

As of December 2018, there is little to hint of the building’s former glory. There is only a small sign on the outside of the building that says “J. J. Jefferies, pugilist.” The building may not have seen the last of pro-wrestling however. Championship Wrestling from Hollywood came close to running events there in 2016 and 2017 and they have had ongoing talks about potential future events there.

If you are Knott’s Berry Farm, and you find yourself at the upper end of the Ghost Town area, near the Boardwalk, you might just see a building from Southern California’s golden age of wrestling.

Jefferies sign on the Wilderness Dance Hall in December 2018.

Sources:

-Los Angeles Times
-The Long Beach Independent
-WrestlingData.com

About the Author

Steve Bryant
Fan of Godzilla.