Preserving the Reagan Ranch and its simplistic legacy
High up and tucked away in the Santa Ynez Mountains sits a simple, peaceful time capsule full of priceless memories, rich history and breathtaking views.
Rancho del Cielo, “Ranch in the Heavens,” was once a spiritual haven and a breath of fresh air for President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy.
To this day, almost entirely untouched yet carefully maintained, the Reagan Ranch is anything but a lavish, elegant or spacious palace that one might expect a sitting president to use as a getaway. It’s neither a tourist attraction nor a curated museum.
Rather, the home of the Reagans is an 1,800 square foot, one bedroom, cozy, rustic adobe farmhouse that represents the hard work and genuine character of a man, each decoration and piece of furniture as it was in its prime, telling timeless tales.
The “Western White House” is owned by the Young America’s Foundation and preserved by staff members committed to honoring not necessarily his political legacy, but his legacy as an American man who, while holding the highest office in the land, enjoyed the little things in life, and not too much more.
The property appears as though a pause button was pressed in 1989, and YAF aims to keep it just how the Reagans left it on their last visit in 1995.
From the wine fridge President Reagan purchased from a Santa Barbara merchant, to a showerhead in the shape and likeness of a tiny Liberty Bell, to the two twin-sized beds zip tied together for the couple to sleep in, the Reagans’ home is the exemplary model of serenity and simplicity.
A tour of the ranch doesn’t boast high-end appliances or impressive architecture — instead, it shares tales of humility, like the fact that President Reagan’s favorite food was mac ‘n’ cheese from the box and that he kept his used nuts and bolts in empty peanut butter jars.
“There really aren’t a lot of clues that a sitting president lived here,” said Madison Habersetzer, the program officer of the Reagan Ranch and one of the tour guides. “It feels like they (the Reagans) could be sitting in the next room.”
Ms. Habersetzer has worked at the ranch for over a year now, and told the News-Press that it’s important to “think about the things you don’t see” on the ranch.
For one, visitors won’t see paved roads or presidential seals all over. Visitors experience bumpy dirt paths and see worn saddles, and the bell that President Reagan rang for his wife when the horses were ready to ride, along with the bell the First Lady rang when it was time for lunch.
The couple lived quite like newlyweds in their time at the ranch, with minimal space, no air conditioning or heat and plenty of upkeep. They spent their time horseback riding for two hours each morning through the 20 miles of trails, breathing, thinking and praying.
President Reagan always tried to learn more about the local region when he was at the ranch as well. His shelves included many history books about the Channel Islands and the general history of Santa Barbara. He also incorporated Chumash Indian relics into his decor.
“He really did love Santa Barbara history and California history,” said Alec Sackett, the development officer for the ranch. “What you see today is only a result of his vision and his own two hands put to work.”
Mr. Sackett has spent the last four years at the ranch, and told the News-Press the ranch is all about the character of President Reagan and shows how he was a good leader, and a good man.
The Reagans spent nearly a full year of time at the ranch during his eight-year presidency, fully equipped with his communications team and secret service agents, who navigated securing the property while keeping it as natural as possible, per the president’s request.
In addition, President Reagan built and fixed up much of the property, balancing his complex, high-pressure job with physical grunt work, referring to the ranch as his place to “recharge his batteries.”
Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Bushes and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney are just a few of the notable guests the Reagans hosted at their humble abode.
However, the president and First Lady spent the majority of their evenings alone together in the living room, watching their tiny, old-fashioned television or gazing out at the quiet pasture.
“We’re very mindful of the fact that we’re stewards of an incredibly important place, so the preservation aspect of it is really integral to the project,” said Andrew Coffin, the director of the Reagan Ranch and vice president of YAF. “You walk in the house and his books are on the bookshelves, his clothes in the closet, saddles, chainsaws, jeep… all still just as he left it, which I think makes it a very intimate experience. You really feel like you’re getting to know a person.”
The ranch has a full-time ranch manager and ranch hand that live on site. YAF offers tours to groups of high school and college students, and select supporters of the foundation. The nonprofit also holds events at the property on occasion, the most recent being the 9/11: Never Forget Project.
Other than that, the ranch is closed off to the public. Amid COVID-19, staff members have conducted live virtual tours for students over Zoom, where they can engage and ask questions, in order to replicate what would be hundreds of high school and college students touring the property in person under normal circumstances.
Ranch staff members hope to give visitors an experience that they can reflect on, learning from a leader of the nation who kept it simple, and lived out his dream that’s attainable for every American. As the years go by, students may not be familiar with President Reagan’s time in office, but the ranch provides a unique glimpse into his life as a regular man and a role model.
“Whatever your political persuasion, this is an essential place in Santa Barbara’s history to protect and share,” Mr. Coffin told the News-Press. “In addition to saving that pristine 688 acres along the Gaviota coast, creating the Center in downtown Santa Barbara so that visitors from around the world know that this was Ronald Reagan’s home… I think it’s an important part of our community that I hope a broad spectrum of people can embrace.”