SANTA BARBARA, CALIF–Rancho del Cielo, the “Ranch in the Sky,” is at the center of a program to teach the ideas of the late former president to a future generation. I consider it an honor to serve everyday as the executive director of Young America’s Foundation, the organization that saved the ranch from near destruction in 1998.
There is no better place to understand President Reagan’s principles, and his practical down-to-earth manner, than at Rancho del Cielo. A much-needed counterpoint to the often shortsighted political world of Washington, D.C., the Reagan ranch conveys the true spirit of Reagan. If you want to understand Ronald Reagan, says former First Lady Nancy Reagan, then go to the ranch.
Rancho del Cielo uniquely and powerfully communicates so much about Ronald Reagan that could not be readily gleaned from other sources, or by reading about him. The very essence of his character is found here at the ranch–his humility, his idealism, his diligence, and his work.
The Reagans purchased the 688-acre ranch in 1974, shortly before Reagan completed his second term as governor of California. “From the first day we saw it,” Reagan said, “Rancho del Cielo cast a spell over us. No place before or since has ever given Nancy and me the joy and serenity it does. Rancho del Cielo can make you feel as if you are on a cloud looking down at the world.” The ranch, overlooking the Santa Ynez Valley and the Pacific Ocean, reflects the endless vistas of freedom and possibility that Reagan considered the fundamental elements of the American experience. At the same time, the Reagans viewed the ranch as a private retreat–a haven from the frenzy of public life. There, in a setting both rugged and pastoral, they could spend time alone or with family and friends.
President Reagan loved to work with his hands and enjoyed doing chores around his property, such as building fences. He found hard labor helped him to relax. He did much of the renovation work on the ranch house soon after purchasing it, including the roofing, tiling, and laying the stone patio, and derived a great deal of satisfaction from being able to see what he’d accomplished. The ranch house was heated by the fireplace, so Reagan had to chop a lot of wood to keep the house warm. In fact, a stack of the wood Reagan himself chopped still sits near the house. Reagan also made his own lake on the ranch, Lake Lucky.
Reagan spent 345 days of presidency at Rancho del Cielo, and it became known as the “Western White House” during those years. Understanding its importance to his well-being, President Reagan always checked his schedule to make sure he would have time to spend at the ranch. Reagan was never more content than when he was horseback riding in a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans. He often said, “Nothing is so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.”
Though he came to the ranch to “recharge his batteries,” Reagan maintained an active work schedule there, hosting a number of U.S. officials and world leaders including, at different times, Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
One of the comments I heard most often by visitors when they see the ranch house is that they are struck by how small and humble it is–they expect the home to be grander and more opulent. When Gorbachev visited the Reagans at the ranch, he said their home was “much too humble for a president.” The original house was built in 1872 and, including an L-shaped wrap-around room added by the Reagans, measures only 1,500 square feet. Of course, Reagan could have constructed an enormous, ostentatious mansion, but he felt more comfortable in this small, unassuming home and was proud of its modest charms. “This,” Reagan would say, “is who I really am.”
The next generation will be inspired by his conservative principles when they visit this humble ranch. This is where future leaders will come to meet him, and marvel at his legacy.
–Floyd Brown is executive director of the leadership development organization, Young America’s Foundation, operated out of the Reagan ranch.