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Ronald Reagan’s Other White House

Ronald Reagan spent one-eighth of his presidency at Rancho del Cielo, a bare bones ranch high in the California mountains

It’s very hard to get to Rancho del Cielo. Almost 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, a turn off at Refugio Pass on the Pacific Coast Highway leads to seven miles of tortuous one-lane road high into the Santa Ynez Mountains. It is another mile on a bumpy private road, past a California chaparral landscape of coastal oaks, madrone trees, and brown grass, until you finally reach the clearing of the "Ranch in the Sky," 2,400 feet above sea level. There is a little lake, a barn, a stable, some auxiliary buildings, and breathtaking views. There is also a small, unassuming, five-room adobe house. But don’t judge this adobe by its cover. For eight years in the 1980s, the enigmatic leader of the free world and his regal wife could often be found sleeping peacefully in the structure’s small lemon yellow bedroom, alone except for the secret service agents in the bushes, on horseback, and at central command a few feet away.

The story of Rancho del Cielo starts around 1880, when it was homesteaded by a man named José Jesus Pico. Contrary to popular belief, there is no proof that he was closely related to the pioneering Pico family of Governor Pío Pico fame. Jesus Pico built the small adobe house we see today. Together with his children, he planted a vineyard and grew a variety of crops on the mountaintop land, which came to be known as Rancho de los Picos. The ranch stayed in the family until 1941, when it was sold to Santa Barbara County surveyor Frank Flournoy. Flournoy soon sold the land to Roy and Rosalie Cornelius, who turned it into a working cattle ranch and renamed it the Tip Top Ranch.

Everybody has their own Shangri-La … This is ours.
-Ronald Reagan

Cornelius ran 5,000 head of cattle, and was a cigar chomping cowboy in the truest sense of the word. The Cornelius children were raised in the traditions of the Old West. In 1957, the Los Angeles Times ran a picture of the Cornelius’s five-year-old daughter, Glenda, playing with a massive Bahama steer named Buford and a small dog. The reporter said the scene "resembles old home week as they frolic about together in the field." Two years later, the Times was back, covering lunchtime during a large-scale cattle roundup at the Tip Top Ranch:

Up the pass, afternoon breezes are wafted from the ocean, bringing relief to parched siesta-ing cowpokes. The Tip Top Ranch house itself is plain but comfortable. Wives and grown daughters of the ranch owners and the cowboys prepared substantial meals, including thick steaks barbequed over an outdoor pit. The riders would take their plates to the shade of oak trees or in the ranch living room. Leather reclining chairs and long couches covered with Mexican rugs are the main furniture in the big, beamed living room. Old maps and pelts of bobcats are nailed to the walls. Although meals are substantial, Cornelius himself came around offering slabs of chocolate cake, then cigars, to finish off the repast.

Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

As the years passed, it was assumed that Glenda would inherit the ranch. In a strange coincidence she went to boarding school in Arizona, where she roomed with a girl named Patti, whose father was the governor of California. Patti remembered Glenda as "a rodeo rider, a tall, sturdy girl who could rope a cow, tame a wild horse, and chew tobacco with the best of them." But tragedy struck and Glenda was killed in a car accident on New Year’s Eve in 1971. Utterly bereft, her parents decided to sell the ranch.

Patti’s father, Ronald Reagan, was about to wrap up his second term as governor and he was looking for a refuge from the pressures of the outside world. Reagan, who many friends considered a "frustrated cowboy," was instantly enamored with the ranch. In November 1974, it was announced that the Reagans, under the guise of the Ronald Reagan Trust, had bought the 688-acre ranch for around $527,000. They renamed it Rancho del Cielo and set about refurbishing the rundown property. "From the first day we saw it, Rancho del Cielo cast a spell over us," Reagan recalled. "No place before or since has ever given Nancy and me the joy and serenity it does."

With the help of his employee Barney Barnett and the always game Nancy, Reagan went to work. They completely renovated the old adobe, installing a new roof, redoing the veranda, painting fences, and ripping out walls. ''And we - WE - put that tile down,'' Nancy recalled. ''And WE painted that. Nobody will believe that, but it's true!'' Patti Davis remembered her father’s enthusiasm for the adobe’s new floors:

My father redid the floors … with adhesive tiles meant to look like terra-cotta pavers. He was so enthusiastic about them. "A fraction of what the real ones would cost!" he exclaimed. "And they look so real!" Of course, they didn't. They looked exactly like what they were: vinyl tiles, colored to look like faux-brick, with adhesive on the back.

Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

In the early years, a "no politics allowed" policy was strictly enforced at the ranch. This became more difficult after Reagan was elected to the presidency in November 1980. After the election, as he and Nancy holed up at the rancho, neighbors in the rural area fretted over what would become of their bucolic, isolated paradise:

"I voted for him," said a woman who asked not be identified and who lives within a mile of Reagan’s front gate. "And I’m delighted he won. But I know that it’s going to cause us a lot of trouble." "What kind of trouble"," she was asked by a reporter. "You," she answered, "and people like you."

Initially, the Reagans were equally worried about the press descending onto their paradise. During one early press conference, Reagan made his displeasure over having to invite the world into his private retreat evident. According to Curtis Wilkie of the Boston Globe,

Outside the stucco ranch house, four unbridled horses wandered in and out of view in the fog, munching weeds and apparently oblivious to the sudden clutter of television cameras and lights that were set up on the Reagans' lawn. When Reagan came out of his house, he said it was the first day of bad weather of the week. "I shall refrain from saying that you all are responsible for bringing it up with you," he told his visitors.

Although the rancho was classified as their official out-of-town presidential residence, so that government funds could be used to ensure its security, Reagan was determined that it would not become a "Western White House" like the Nixon compound in San Clemente, where government officials were in and out at all hours of the day and night. Neighbors were soon relieved that the press and tourists were kept far away, although their garage doors did mysteriously jam whenever the presidential helicopter appeared. The press quickly realized it would have to be content with periodic Western-themed photo ops at the ranch, while they stayed miles away in Santa Barbara. And so the frequent presidential vacations to the ranch also became vacations for the press, who brought out their bathing suits and spent hours lounging at local hotel bars.

The ranch quickly became a potent symbol of President Reagan’s image as an All-American original, a political "Marlboro man," somehow mythically above the fray. "It is an axiom among President Reagan's advisers," the New York Times reported, "that, given his choice, Mr. Reagan will head for California every time." Each Sunday, Reagan would give a radio address "from the ranch." A 1981 Barbara Walters holiday special featuring the Reagans riding the range further increased the ranch’s iconic stature. This was a fortunate break, since the fact that Reagan would end up spending roughly a year of his eight years as president at the ranch was seen by many as proof of his out-of-touch, aloof nature. Reagan defended himself, repeating Nancy’s firm belief that "Presidents don't get vacations. They just get a change of scenery. And you're still president. The job goes with you."

Daily bulletins were issued from the ranch detailing the Reagans' life away from the White House. Reagan started the day doing his presidential duties, which he called his "Washington homework." He then rang an old bell to summon Nancy and the two would ride the ranch’s 12 miles of trails, security people on horses and in a Hummer trailing discreetly behind. The afternoon was spent doing "chores"—collecting and splitting wood for the adobe’s two fireplaces and clearing brush (which some claimed was brought in for him to clear). It's the greatest therapy in the world, because it becomes all important," Reagan would say, referring to his chores. "The environmentalists, I am sure, will be happy to know we don't cut down trees for firewood." The evening was spent alone or with family and friends from the Hollywood colony, who relaxed on the adobe’s 1970s-style orange couches.

Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

It was alone time that the Reagans clearly cherished most. The couple frequently canoed on the lake, which Reagan called Lake Lucky, or drove around in Reagan’s old red Jeep, which had a  license plate reading "GIPPER." They carved their initials into Heart Rock, a big sandstone boulder on the property. Nancy would leave out carrots for cottontail rabbits, and Reagan himself created a graveyard for their dearly departed dogs, cats, and horses, which he called Boot Hill. Although some would claim Nancy longed for the glamour of the White House and Beverly Hills, she was always quick to disagree. "I don't chop wood but I don't stay on the phone all the time either," she told USA Today. "I love it."

But there can be little doubt that her "Ronnie" loved it more. As the end of his presidency neared, aides told the Chicago Tribune that the ranch was "all he wanted to talk about." "I think that particular place casts a spell on you," he explained. "When you get in there, it's—the world is gone." To him the ranch symbolized "peace, quiet and beauty." After he and Nancy left the White House, Reagan released a letter in honor of their fortieth wedding anniversary, telling of their life post-presidency:

We relax at the ranch, which if not Heaven itself, probably has the same ZIP code …  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.

In 1996, as Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease increasingly confined him to their mansion in Bel Air, Nancy made the painful decision to put the ranch on the market for an asking price of around $6 million. The wide open spaces that had once so inspired Reagan now frightened him.

Paul Harris/Online USA, Inc./Getty Images

For two years, the ranch sat on the market. "Other than the fact that Reagan was there, there isn't anything really remarkable about the place," one real estate appraiser explained at the time. A proposed plan by Governor Pete Wilson to turn the ranch into a state park was furiously opposed by neighbors, who feared an onslaught of tourists. It was finally bought in 1998 by the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group that now uses it as a retreat for a new generation of Republican youth. Everything in the old adobe has been perfectly preserved, down to the tacky fake terra cotta tiles Reagan installed over 40 years ago.

Of course, to Reagan the tiles weren’t tacky—they were a perfect part of his perfect heaven. According to USA Today, once, when he was asked if the long grass at the ranch was in danger of turning an unsightly brown, Reagan replied promptly, "That's not brown. That's golden."

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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