The renovation gave him more room to show off the family's collection of Monterey furniture and mementos. They included the head of a Texas steer, saddles, Navajo blankets and rugs, a leopard skin given to him by a sultan and Western paintings and sculptures by his friends Charles Russell and Ed Borein.

One cherished object was a stuffed calf on casters, presented by Borein, who had tired of being the target when Rogers hauled out a rope after dinner. Rogers practiced so much on the rolling calf that most of its ears wore away.

In early August 1935, Rogers made a last will and testament leaving his estate and earnings to Betty. Then he set out on a far northern sightseeing adventure with a celebrated aviator, his friend and fellow Oklahoman, Wiley Post.

It looks like the only way you can get any publicity on your death is to be killed in a plane. It's no novelty to be killed in an auto anymore.

In Seattle, Rogers and Post climbed aboard a clumsy hybrid Lockheed aircraft — body and engine from one plane, wings from another, oversized pontoons from a third. They headed for Juneau, Alaska, where bad weather briefly grounded them. Then they skipped across Alaska for several days. Rogers wrote about Eskimos, caribou herds and Mt. McKinley.

On Aug. 15, 1935, they flew into a nasty storm. Post managed to land on a lagoon and asked some fishermen to point him toward the town of Barrow.

As recounted by Richard M. Ketchum, a Rogers biographer, Eskimos watching from a remote shoreline near Point Barrow saw the plane lift off and bank to the right. Suddenly, the engine sputtered and died, and the red monoplane went into a dive.

Rogers' broken body was pulled from the wreckage, along with his smashed typewriter, which held a sheet of paper on which he had been composing his next column.

Will Rogers — heartland humanitarian, goodwill ambassador, populist favorite of presidents and paupers — was dead at 55. Back at the ranch, all work was halted.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that the loss of no other single life has profoundly affected so great a multitude of people in all countries and all ranks of society," the Los Angeles Times said. "Kings, statesmen, artists, leaders in every line of human endeavor pass away and others fill the vacancies. No one in the world today can take the place of Will Rogers."

I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn't like.

Maintenance and taxes on Rogers' landholdings strained the family's finances. In June 1944, his widow deeded the ranch house and surrounding 186.5 acres to the state of California, with conditions: The state would maintain the structures and grounds as a memorial to Rogers. If the property was not properly preserved, it would revert to the family. Two weeks later, she died.

Once under state control, Will Rogers State Historic Park inevitably began feeling less like a home and more like a public park.

In 1952, the state authorized horse boarding there for the purpose of establishing a regular polo program. Over the years, the number of horses increased to 114.

Among the owners were Arnold Schwarzenegger (not yet governor), his wife, Maria Shriver, and other celebrities.

As sheds and pipe stalls rose on pastures and in canyons, the public began complaining that the park had deteriorated and become the domain of a few influential people.

Horses had kicked holes in the walls of the barn. Trees had grown unchecked, blocking views. The ranch house had a leaky roof and a musty smell.

Four years ago, Chuck Rogers, a grandson of the humorist, threatened to sue the state Department of Parks and Recreation for neglecting the property.

Randy Young, a local historian who had befriended the Rogers family and was chairman of the nonprofit Will Rogers Cooperative Assn., launched an effort to boot the horses out of the park.

Park officials ended the private boarding of horses and launched a wide-ranging restoration. One of the first steps was to catalog thousands of objects that Rogers had accumulated — from ropes and spurs to the globe on which he plotted his final trip.

Last December, specialists began disassembling the south wing of the house so they could repair drainage problems, install heating and cooling systems and bolster the structure against movements of the earth.

In the living room, where Rogers had enjoyed sending his rolling calf skittering across the floorboards, every plank was pried loose, carefully labeled and put in temporary storage.

The formal public opening of the house is planned for next spring.

The project architect, Taylor Louden, said he hoped visitors wouldn't notice all the work that had gone into it. The goal, he said, is to make the house look "like Will just stepped out for a minute."

State parks officials look forward to reacquainting visitors, particularly schoolchildren, with the ranch.

"This was the home of one of America's most beloved national figures," said Ruth Coleman, state parks director.

"Our children need to learn this story."