‘Reagan Country’ Gets Put on Map : Library: Simi Valley, where presidential center will open Nov. 4, is a predominantly Anglo bedroom community of white-collar workers who make up the core of his constituency.
While her husband was still in the White House, Nancy Reagan and her entourage four-wheeled up a bumpy dirt road to a hilltop that offers one of the last unspoiled views in eastern Ventura County.
She took particular delight in the rugged Western beauty of the dramatic red rock and sagebrush of the surrounding hills, which once served as a backdrop for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans clip-clopping along and singing “Happy Trails to You.”
A short time later, then-President Ronald Reagan flew over the spot in Air Force One on his way to Santa Barbara. Seated beside him, a Republican congressman from Simi Valley pointed out nearby Corriganville, the location of many shoot-'em-up Westerns filmed during Reagan’s days as a movie actor.
The Reagans fell in love with the hilltop above Simi Valley, and within a few weeks it became official: the 100 acres of donated land would be the site of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Four years and $57 million later, the former President is scheduled on Nov. 4 to hold opening ceremonies for the California mission-style library complex that stores his White House papers and a museum chronicling his life and presidency.
Nicaraguan President Violetta Chamorro, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and South Korean Ambassador Hong-choo Hyun are among the foreign dignitaries expected to join 4,200 former Reagan aides, friends and political contributors at the dedication ceremonies.
Although many former Reagan aides plan to attend the event, retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North will be busy in Boston that day plugging his new book in which he charges that Reagan knew everything about the Iran-Contra scandal. North’s secretary said he never received an invitation.
The ceremony will be on the east side of the library, which rests in the hills separating Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, two conservative, predominantly Anglo bedroom communities of aerospace employees, managers and other white-collar workers who make up the core of Reagan’s constituency.
“It’s Reagan country, my friend. There is no other way to describe it,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly, a three-term Republican from Simi Valley (pronounced see-ME).
The communities voted overwhelmingly for Reagan in both presidential races. A solid phalanx of Republicans represent them at the county seat, in Sacramento and Washington.
“The flavor of politics here is very conservative, regardless of national patterns,” said Professor Jonathan Steepee, chairman of the political science department at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. “When Lyndon Baines Johnson took the country by a landslide, (Republican Sen.) Barry Goldwater took Thousand Oaks by a landside.”
But the area’s leanings were probably more of a bonus than a selling factor. By the time Simi Valley was selected in November, 1987, one of the main concerns of library officials was to find a friendly environment so the project could move forward.
Library planners had just lost a lengthy battle with liberal Stanford University faculty members to locate the library on a hill overlooking the prestigious Northern California campus.
When Simi Valley was still among the finalists, a delegation of Ventura County officials flew to Washington to meet with the head of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, which was set up to raise money for the library’s construction.
“They assisted in every way,” said Fred Hummel, the library project director and associate architect. “They were just gracious hosts.”
The reception was a dramatic shift from the experience at Stanford, where faculty members forced the Reagan foundation to sever its proposed conservative think tank from the library, saying that it would taint the university with partisanship. Later, the faculty Senate urged that the library be reduced in size or be moved farther from campus.
“It became clear that continual agitation from left-wing faculty members would affect the progress of the library,” said former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, a longtime Reagan friend and foundation board member. So the foundation began to look elsewhere.
Although Reagan was born and raised in Illinois, he never considered locating his presidential library there. “It was always contemplated to be in California,” Meese said of Reagan’s adopted home state since 1937.
The 1987 search for a new library location turned up more than a dozen sites around Southern California. When the Reagans favored the hilltop above Simi Valley, the foundation readily accepted the donation of 100 acres from Blakeley Swartz, a real estate partnership.
The firm was delighted to link up with the Reagan foundation because county officials had rebuffed its initial attempts to develop the property and the adjacent 540 acres. The county wanted all of the acreage to remain undeveloped.
County officials gave the Reagan foundation special permission to encroach on the greenbelt. With the library built, the real estate firm is making headway on developing more of its acreage.
The 153,000-square-foot library and public affairs center is located about halfway between the Reagans’ estate in Bel-Air and their ranch in the mountains just north of Santa Barbara. It is the first presidential library without any university affiliation or historic association between the land and the President or his family.
It’s an area with a rich history of filmmaking and was once a popular getaway for weekend ranchers in the movie business during Reagan’s years in Hollywood.
Joel McCrae, a popular actor and cowboy from the 1930s to the 1950s, and James Arness, who played Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke,” owned ranches near where the library stands.
Hollywood stuntman Ray (Crash) Corrigan built a Western town on his 2,000-acre ranch in Simi Valley that became the set for 3,500 Westerns, and television episodes of “The Gene Autry Show,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Have Gun, Will Travel.”
“The thing about President Reagan is that he loves the West,” said Fred Ryan, Reagan’s chief of staff. “When we fly over the Western United States and the color of the ground changes, he gets this glow on his face. This area (Simi Valley) is typical of what he sees as the beauty of the West.”
Ryan said Reagan once owned a 350-acre ranch in Agoura Hills near Malibu Lake, about 10 miles southeast of the presidential library. Reagan told Ryan that he sold the ranch when he was elected governor in 1966 because his salary would not cover the property taxes.
Although the Reagan library is in Ventura County, outside any city limits, Simi Valley officials have been quick to claim it as their own.
“Its address is Simi Valley. Its sewers and water are connected to the city. We take pride in that,” said Simi Valley Mayor Greg Stratton. “A presidential library is a plum. But this one has the pride and identification of Reagan that goes along with it.”
Not all Simi Valley residents, however, are thrilled about the Reagan library.
“Looking beyond rubbing elbows with the glitterati, there’s going to be a lot of negative impacts,” said resident Teresa Jordan, 42. She fears that the library could lead to school bus accidents on the steep road leading to the site, increased traffic and air pollution.
Some are apathetic. “I guess I’ll go; there’s not much else to do,” said resident Mike Vaughn. “Will they let regular citizens past the gate or do we have to sit outside the gates and watch the big muckety-mucks go up the hill in their limos?”
The Reagan foundation caught some flak earlier this year for seeking permission to place the Reagans’ graves on the library grounds. Some environmentalists objected, arguing that the Reagans’ memorial would increase visitors and traffic-related pollution.
Still, county supervisors unanimously approved the request.
Stratton said the objections were raised by environmentalists from Ojai, not Simi Valley. He said he has heard nothing but glowing comments about the library from his constituents.
Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks are relatively new cities that have mushroomed in population. The year after Thousand Oaks was incorporated in 1964, it had 19,762 residents; the 1990 census showed that it had grown to 104,352. Simi Valley’s population has climbed from 59,832 in 1970, the year after it incorporated, to 104,352 in 1990.
In a county that is increasingly intent on putting the brakes on pell-mell growth, congestion and pollution, Simi Valley’s elected leaders are among the few still talking in favor of development.
Patricia Havens, Simi Valley’s official historian, said she and other longtime residents believe that El Camino Real, the historic route connecting California’s missions, actually went through Simi Valley, not Thousand Oaks.
“We are going to be on the map yet, and I think the Reagan Library will help a great deal.”
Times staff writer Adrianne Goodman contributed to this story.