Rancho del Cielo Is Like Heaven to Young Conservatives


It's as though the Gipper never left.

Near the front door of the main house at Rancho del Cielo is Ronald Reagan's sweat-stained ball cap. A luffa sponge, glycerin soap and Head & Shoulders shampoo are still in the shower he and Nancy shared.

But three years have passed since the nation's 40th president visited his beloved mountaintop hideaway--known to a generation of Americans as the Western White House. Reagan, who at 87 is struggling with Alzheimer's disease, drew strength and inspiration from the 688-acre property.

"We relax at the ranch, which if not heaven itself, probably has the same ZIP code," he wrote in a 40th wedding anniversary letter in 1992. It was a sanctuary he rarely shared with outsiders, although he was host to such world leaders as Britain's Queen Elizabeth and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Six months ago, the Reagans sold the property and its 100-year-old adobe ranch house to a group now preserving it as a monument to conservatism, an inspiration for a new generation of leaders.

"When you sit in this house you really feel his presence. It's magical," said chief keeper of the shrine Marc Short during a recent tour of the ranch. Pointing to a leather patio table, he noted it's where the 1981 Economic Recovery Act was signed.

"It's where we think the Reagan Revolution started," the awe-struck 28-year-old said.

The Virginia-based Young America's Foundation, which promotes conservative values among high school and college students, purchased Rancho del Cielo for an undisclosed price. Reagan spokeswoman Joanne Drake won't say how much, but it was close to the $5.95 million asking price.

"We hope that our ranch will be a spark for many bright young Americans in the years ahead," Nancy Reagan said in a statement after the sale.

Short, executive director of the Young America's Foundation, moved from Virginia to California in June with his 24-year-old bride, Kristen. "We drove across America in a Honda Accord," she boasted.

They've been inside the ranch house many times, but guests can almost hear the young couple's pounding hearts as they step inside what they solemnly call "hallowed ground" and lovingly tend to the property.

"We feel we are the luckiest people in the world. We're honored to be given this responsibility," Short said, gazing across the Reagan-built patio with a metal "1600 Penna. Ave." sign overhead and a view of Lake Lucky, where the Reagans often canoed.

"Nothing draws a couple closer together than to find a pretty spot, maybe a ukulele and a canoe--Nancy's idea of the perfect romantic setting--and share happy thoughts of the past," Reagan wrote in his anniversary letter. The canoe Tru Luv is on display at the library.

Most would be surprised by the modest furnishings and size of the 1,200-square-foot ranch house: the aluminum motel-like windows (the bulletproof glass was removed after Reagan left the White House); the faux red brick linoleum floor throughout; the harvest gold refrigerator.

There's even a Liberty Bell shower head in the bathroom.

It's a far cry from the Blue Room and certainly lacks the elegance of other famous presidential retreats such as Kennebunkport, San Clemente or Hyannisport. But it's cozy, and it is easy to understand why the Reagans cherished escaping there for 25 years.

"He lived just like we did. That's why he was the Great Communicator," Short said.

The Young America's Foundation plans to use the ranch for leadership seminars to steep young people in Reagan philosophies. A conference center will be built nearby, and students will likely make day and weekend trips to the ranch, even riding the seven miles of horse trails.

"The majority of our programs will be focused on the Reagan era and how he changed the world," Short said. A $10-million to $15-million capital drive to build the conference center and house the students is in the planning stages.

Nancy Reagan hauled many items out of the basement of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, about 80 miles from the ranch, and spent about three hours with Kristen making sure each item was placed exactly as it had been.

"Everything has been checked over by Mrs. Reagan. If something was out of place, she moved it back to its original spot," Kristen Short said.

"She came up here about a week after settlement. She hopped out in her jeans and tennis shoes and quickly went right to work with Kristen," Marc Short said. "It was emotional. She was emotional when she left. I think in a lot of ways it was a sense of closure for her."

The effect is poignant.

A weathered copy of "Lonesome Dove" sits on a bookshelf, rugged Western paintings fill the walls, a shotgun rests on antlers over a door, and the kitchen spice rack is stocked with containers of paprika, oregano and cinnamon undoubtedly used for the Thanksgiving family feasts held at the ranch.

Reagan's boots are lined up in a walk-in closet in the bright yellow bedroom. There are cowboy hats too, as well as a collection of nearly hubcap-size belt buckles. A spur once carried in outer space is on a shelf. "Nancy" and "Ron" monogrammed robes rest on hangers.

Reagan's saddles, including the well-worn English model he preferred, are in the tack room. His blue-and-gold cavalry horse blanket hangs on a wall.

"His legend lives on," Marc Short said. "It's not something that's an eight-year time frame when he was president. He's a guy who came on the political scene in 1964 and is someone who's been the standard-bearer for the conservative movement ever since and is still today."

In a 1990 interview with the Associated Press, Reagan told how he enjoyed trimming the hundreds of oak trees on the property. "I love the dappled look on the ground when the sun comes through," he said.

On a hill in a grove of oaks just above the ranch house is a solemn site where Reagan kept those trees trimmed back: the Reagan family pet graveyard. Nancy Reagan's beloved quarter horse No Strings is there. There's also a bull named Duke, horses Kelly and Duke, and dogs Victory, Freebo, Millie, Taca, Lucky, Kodiak, Sasha, Fang, Fuzzy and Rhino.

Each one has a marker with a name carved by Reagan. The latest addition was in September, when dog Rex died. But this time, a ranch hand carved the stone.

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