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Reminiscing About a Piece of History

Unable to resist, I turned off U.S. 101 at Refugio Beach 23 miles north of Santa Barbara and headed up the canyon. One more time on the narrow, winding road under oaks and elms, past lemon and avocado groves, over six creek beds and two cattle guards, up seven steep miles to the iron gate painted camouflage green.

Last ranch below the 2,250-foot summit. Unlock the chain and drive onto “Pennsylvania Avenue,” as the owner years ago dubbed his private road.

Through another gate, across a meadow and here it is--the 124-year-old adobe, main house of Rancho del Cielo, “ranch in the sky.” Ronald Reagan’s ranch, 688 acres of oak, manzanita, riding trails, assorted critters and ocean vistas.

Now for sale. Asking price about $6 million.

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The former president hasn’t set foot here since spring. Because of Alzheimer’s, he no longer can ride a horse and, in fact, doesn’t even feel comfortable at the ranch. Alzheimer’s patients need familiar surroundings and Rancho del Cielo has begun to seem strange.

I was curious how a real estate agent would show the property. Sure, the salesperson would point out the small main house--1,500 sf, 2br, 2ba, lr, fr, 2fp--the guest house, caretaker’s house, bunkhouse, hay barn, tack room, stalls. But what about the hidden charm and history?

I was hoping for a sort of open house.

“That will not be possible,” came the official response from Reagan’s office in Century City.

No matter. I knew about this place. I’d park outside and concoct my own sales pitch to some potential buyer.

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There, I’d say from the porch, is the pond where the president would wade in and catch water snakes with his hands. He’d stuff them into a burlap sack and haul them to a neighbor’s pond. His wife, Nancy, hated snakes, hated anything that crawled.

His first year as president, somebody found a wood rat infected with bubonic plague nearby.

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Reagan routinely set traps to keep field mice out of the house.

He planted the pond with goldfish. One summer, they were going belly up. After burying about 300, the president figured out the problem: lack of oxygen. So he built a sprinkler aeration system.

He grazed cattle and horses in the 100-acre pasture. Only one cow’s left, Duchess the Texas longhorn.

There’s a sad story about a big white horse--El Alamein--given to him by the Mexican president. El Alamein arrived here a stallion, but he was too spirited, so Reagan ordered surgery and transformed him into a gelding.

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Up there is Mt. Rhino, where the ranch’s first dog, Rhino, is buried along with a bunch of other pets. The president’s favorite horse, Little Man, is there. So is Mrs. Reagan’s No Strings. All the animals have their own markers.

Then over the hill is Heart Rock, a big sandstone where family members over the years have carved their initials. You’ll find “RR + NDR.”

And inside here is where the president once was doing a voice check for his Saturday radio broadcast and said into a live mike: “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I have signed legislation to outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Most Americans just laughed.

Except for family, Reagan didn’t invite up many people. He savored his privacy, riding in the morning and doing chores after lunch--building fences, chopping wood.

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Queen Elizabeth came here once, during the worst storm of the decade. The creeks were all flooded and they needed big four-wheel drive vehicles. It rained so hard you couldn’t even see the pasture out the house windows.

After he left office, Reagan brought up Margaret Thatcher. He also once drove Mikhail Gorbachev around the ranch in a Jeep. The Russian was surprised at the primitiveness.

Any questions?

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Yeah, I thought to myself driving back down the mountain, why are they selling this place anyway?

Friends had expected the ranch to stay in the family. Then Mrs. Reagan decided to unload it. She doesn’t need the money, they say, but neither does she need the headache.

So why not try to sell to a foundation or perhaps the state or feds? Preserve history. Let people park at the state beach and be driven up in vans. Walk through the house Reagan remodeled with his own hands. Look around outside where, the Great Communicator once told me, “most of my thinking about speeches comes--doing ranch work, not sitting at a desk.”

See where the president was clearing brush when he learned the Russians had shot down a Korean airliner, where he once stomped the head of a rattlesnake, wearing only sneakers. . . .

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I might even know a volunteer tour guide.


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