- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2007

SANTA BARBARA, Calif.

No special sign marks the Re- fugio Road exit from U.S. 101 as leading to a historic site. Avocado and lemon groves line the two-lane road for the first part of the seven-mile drive eastward, until the road begins a 2,000-foot climb into the Santa Ynez Mountains. Twisting and turning through a narrow valley, the road becoming increasingly steep.

The ascent strains even the powerful four-wheel-drive vehicle driven by Clark Vandeventer, 27, who recounts a journey up Refugio Road that happened before he was born.

“The first time they came up, there came a point where Mrs. Reagan said, ‘Ronnie, let’s just turn around. There can’t be anything back here. This is just so remote.’ ”

That was 1974. Ronald Reagan, then nearing the end of his two terms as governor of California, and his wife, Nancy, were riding with businessman William A. Wilson, who lived nearby. The Reagans had asked Mr. Wilson to help them find a ranch in the area, but the trek up the narrow road was discouraging.

“But when they pulled into the property,” Mr. Vandeventer says, relating the story as he heard it from Mr. Wilson, “Reagan turned to him and said, ‘Bill, how did you find this place? This is just perfect. This is just what I had in mind.’ … And finally, Bill said, ‘Governor, you be quiet. Ray Cornelius, who owns this ranch, is here today. I don’t want him to hear you talking this way. The price is going to go up.” ”

The Reagans bought the 688-acre property for $450,000 and named it Rancho del Cielo — “Ranch in the Sky.” It became famous during the Reagan presidency as the scene of Mr. Reagan’s vacation horseback rides and where he hosted such visiting dignitaries as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

For more than 20 years, the ranch was the Reagan family’s private retreat. Today, it is the focus of an effort to preserve Mr. Reagan’s political legacy for future generations.

The Young America’s Foundation (YAF) purchased Rancho del Cielo in 1998 and has made it a pilgrimage destination for high-school and college students learning about the Reagan philosophy.

“The ranch shows the real Ronald Reagan,” says Ron Robinson, president of YAF.

It has been preserved in authentic historical condition, including the furniture, the books on the shelves and the saddles in the barn.

“It’s a special place. You can see why Reagan chose it,” Mr. Robinson says.

Mr. VandeventerYAF’s director of development and supporter relations for the Reagan Ranch Center — is an experienced ranch guide, pointing out the fences and stone patio that Mr. Reagan built himself.

Inside the adobe ranch house, the Western-style decor is simple, informal and occasionally humorous, as in the case of the two novelty “jackalope” heads mounted on one wall. Double doors separate the living room and dining area from the bedroom and den where the Reagans spent quiet time together.

The den, with its Zenith television, “was very much a private sanctuary,” Mr. Vandeventer says, pointing out the chair where Mr. Reagan often fell asleep reading in the evenings.

Shortly after YAF purchased the ranch, Mr. Robinson got a call from Edwin I. Meese III — who served as chief of staff when Mr. Reagan was governor and as attorney general in the Reagan administration — asking for a tour of the ranch.

Mr. Meese “walked in that front door and walked in [the den], and was kind of pulled to this painting that hangs above the couch,” Mr. Vandeventer says, pointing to a large oil landscape. “And he stood here and tears began to well up in his eyes.

“This was the going-away gift to Governor Reagan. Ronald Reagan’s last day as governor, Ed Meese presented this painting to him as the going-away gift from the gubernatorial staff. It had hung here for 25 years. [Mr. Meese] had never been in this room. So that gives you a sense of what a private area this was.”

The foundation purchased the property for $4.5 million after both federal and California officials turned down the opportunity to acquire the ranch in the 1990s, Mr. Robinson says.

YAF’s ownership of the ranch continues a long relationship between the foundation and Mr. Reagan, who died in 2004.

“We sponsored his radio commentaries in 1974 and 1975,” Mr. Robinson says. “He hosted our student conferences each year at the White House [during his presidency] and addressed our national conservative student conferences as late as 1993.”

Because of the desire to preserve the ranch in historic condition, YAF needed another facility for offices and as a site for educational functions.

“By 2001, we started looking for another location near the ranch to complement it with the classroom activities,” Mr. Robinson says. YAF board member Virginia Knott “was insistent that we find a high-traffic location,” he says, which eventually led the foundation to purchase the Neal Hotel in downtown Santa Barbara — two blocks from the beach on busy State Street, convenient to the city’s Amtrak station and the Pacific Coast Highway.

Purchased for $5 million, the old hotel — a landmark built in 1907 — was then “gutted and rebuilt” with a “steel inner shell” to bring it up to current building codes, Mr. Robinson says.

Rechristened the Reagan Ranch Center, the facility includes a museum, theater, offices and conference center. Opened last year, the center has hosted major events, including a conference in November that drew more than 600 college students from 25 states and last month’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Mr. Reagan”s famous “tear down this wall” speech in Berlin.

Spreading his philosophy of freedom to young people “was always an integral part of Ronald Reagan’s mission,” Mr. Robinson says. “Many of his most memorable speeches were to college audiences.”

Noting Mr. Reagan’s high-profile clashes as governor with student protesters at the University of California, Mr. Robinson says it is in some sense “particularly ironic’ that America’s oldest president continues to inspire new generations of college activists.

Yet Mr. Reagan “always knew,” Mr. Robinson says, “there was a potential of reaching young people with ideas.”

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