Will Rogers Ranch Overview
Will Rogers State Historic Park was the private ranch of the world famous movie star, radio personality, columnist, philosopher and American Cowboy, Will Rogers. In the early 1930’s, Will Rogers was the popular and highest paid actor in Hollywood. His 186 acre ranch in Pacific Palisades, California was the place where he could relax with his family and friends, pursing his favorite pastimes of riding horseback, roping steers or playing polo. The iconic Western Ranch House at Will Rogers State Historic Park (SHP) is on the National Register of Historic Places and, aside from his 31 room ranch house, the State Historic Park includes a historic stable, a regulation polo field, riding arena, roping area, numerous corrals, horse pastures, golf course and lots of trails. The park’s famous Inspiration Point Trail provides visitors with fantastic 360 degree ocean vistas of Southern California and provides hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians access to the Backbone Trail.
One of Will’s many passions was promoting aviation and it was sadly that, with Wiley Post, he went to his untimely death on August.15, 1935 in a plane crash. At his death, Will Rogers was considered the most loved of all Americans. His 1935 funeral in California was believed to be the biggest turnout of mourners since the death of Abraham Lincoln. He made 71 movies during the 1920’s and 1930’s, wrote 4,000 syndicated newspaper columns and six books. Rogers held all movie box office records for 1933. During his lifetime, Will traveled around the world three times, meeting people, covering wars, talking about peace and learning everything possible. Will Rogers’ fame knew no boundaries and he is considered by many in the entertainment industry as the first true global celebrity. His signature saying, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” is still and will forever be attributed to this larger than life person. Will Rogers’ ranch became a California State Park in 1944.
Pacific Palisades is known as "Where The Mountains Meet the Sea" and is home to numerous Hollywood celebrities and luminaries. Primarily a very affluent residential area, it includes some large parklands and many hiking trails. The city began in 1911 as a Western film factory named “Inceville.” Initially, Inceville was a 460-acre tract of land known as Bison Ranch located at Sunset Boulevard and the Pacific Coast Highway in the Santa Monica hills and grew with an additional acquisition of 18,000 acres of the Palisades Highlands. The area remained a working movie studio under ownership of actor William S. Hart and others until 1922. Rev. Charles H. Scott and the Southern California Methodist Episcopal Church purchased the studio land. In 1922, Rev. Scott founded “Pacific Palisades,” envisioning an elaborate religious-intellectual commune. Believers snapped up choice lots and lived in tents during construction. By 1925, the Palisades had 100 homes. The tents eventually were replaced by cabins, then by bungalows, and ultimately by multimillion-dollar homes. The area was referred to as the California Riviera.
Like many of the movie stars of the day, Will Rogers and his wife Betty (Betty Blake was an Arkansas schoolteacher whom he married in 1908) were living in Beverly Hills, California in late twenties. In 1922, Will Rogers, knowing the opportunity that the Palisades offered, bought a large plot of almost 200 acres of land above Sunset Boulevard (which was a dirt road at the time). His simple goal was to spent $5,000 and just build a weekend cottage. In 1925, Will was given the title "Honorary Mayor of Beverly Hills," becoming the first and (to date) only person so honored as such. He continued to develop his Palisades property and built a polo field on the property in 1926. In 1928, the Rogers Family moved from Beverly Hills to the Pacific Palisades area and made his new ranch their home. Will’s ranch originally had a Los Angeles city address (noted in its National Register listing) and was often referred to as his Santa Monica Ranch, because of its location at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains.
William Penn Adair Rogers was born November 4th, 1879 on a large ranch in the Cherokee Nation, located between Claremore and Oologah, Oklahoma. Both his parents were of Cherokee Indian heritage. Will Rogers was taught by a freed slave how to use a lasso as a tool to work Longhorn cattle on the family ranch. Rogers attended Kemper Military Academy in Boonville, Missouri for two years (“One in the guardhouse and one in the 4th grade,” he said later.) He left school in 1889, and became a cowboy in the Texas Panhandle. Then he drifted off to Argentina and turned up in South Africa a few years later as a member of Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus.
Will is still regarded as one of the “greatest ropers of all time.” As he grew older, Will Rogers' roping skills developed and became so special that he was listed in the Guinness Book of Records for throwing three lassos at once: one rope caught the running horse's neck, the other would hoop around the rider and the third swooped up under the horse to loop all four legs.
He first reached real fame in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916. His hard-earned skills had won him jobs trick roping in Wild West Shows and on the vaudeville stages where, soon, he started telling small jokes. Will Rogers began as a cowboy philosopher, however, he became famous for his homespun humor and his shrewd, timely comments on current life. Quickly, his wise cracks and folksy observations became more prized by audiences than his expert roping. He became recognized as being a very informed and smart philosopher, telling the truth of the day in very simple words, so that everyone could understand. In 1918, he started his motion picture career. Will Rogers' unsurpassed lariat feats were recorded in the 1922 classic movie, "The Ropin' Fool."
His shrewd witticism he made while performing his roping tricks, won him fame and fortune. A talented writer, Rogers’s short comments on the news appeared in over 350 daily newspapers. In 1926, he toured Europe as President Calvin Coolidge’s “Ambassador of Good Will.” The following year, his admirers chuckled over his Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President (1927). Will Rogers was at his best giving a performance. His usual show opening, “All I know is what I read in the papers,” became a byword during the 1920’s. In 1934, Will made his first theatrical appearance in Eugene O’Neill’s stage play “Ah, Wildnerness! “
Family was very important to Will and Betty Rogers. Their move to the Pacific Palisades home provided Will and Betty a comfortable place to raise their children and teach them the ranching lifestyle that was so much part of Will’s youth. His children all became successful and had rewarding lives. Will Rogers Jr. (1911-1993) starred as his father in two feature movies and was a war hero, a successful actor and a US Congressman. Mary Rogers (1913-1989) was a Broadway actress. Jim Rogers (1915-2000) starred in some cowboy movies as a young man and then spent his life as a horse and cattle rancher. As the family representative, Jim Rogers oversaw a $6 million effort to renovate the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Oklahoma. Their youngest son, Fred Rogers, died of diphtheria when he was two years old.
Visitors to Will Rogers SHP will truly enjoy his family Ranch House, which welcomes you as you enter this storied ranch complex and is maintained as a house museum. It remains as a tribute to the beloved actor and American, as it was, including his furniture, decorations and fixtures, family heirlooms and priceless pieces of art. Rogers liked porch swings, so there is one in the living room of the Ranch House, close to Betty’s piano. There is a stuff calf that he used for indoor lasso practice. There are Navajo rugs and an Apache grain basket that were important evidence of his pride in his Native American heritage. As Will said, “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.”
As the biggest movie star in the world, Will’s house featured the state of the art kitchen-electric fridge, Hotpoint electric range. There are 11 bathrooms in all, one for every bedroom. Beautiful drawings by Western artist Ed Borein are displayed. A close friend of Will’s was acclaimed painter and sculptor Charles M. Russell and his portraits of Will and Betty hang, as they did when Will was alive, on the main living room wall. Tex Wheeler, another of Will’s friends, created a statue of the American legend which is on display in Will’s living room.
In 1971, the Will Rogers Western Ranch House (built circa 1926) was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register notes that “Will Rogers Western Ranch House is a large-scale example of a traditional western ranch house with its sprawling plan, open balcony and patio and its simple, rustic, interior and exteriors finishes. The box construction and simple board and batten cladding embodies a rough-and-ready construction technique once frequently employed in the construction of Western Ranch Houses.”
Outdoor living was important to Will Rogers and his family. Their home was connected to the surrounding landscape in significant ways, from layout to the execution of numerous details. In a 1927 letter, Will Rogers instructed is architect on the style of the family ranch house, which was to be a simple, box-like structure, “very plan and ordinary” with a “big wide porch.”
Will located his house at the base of a hillside, on a slight rise of land, with a “good view of everything ocean and all.” Rogers noted that it was to be low enough to “get a bit of level ground around the edge of the porch” and placed “so we can ride our horses up and hitch ‘em right in front of the house, and all our roping and riding and everything we will do in that space down in front of the place where we build the house. Want the whole paddock leveled off and put in grass so it will be nice and green to play and work on. Then you see everything will be right there handy to the barn.”
Over the years, the original small cabin-like house expanded into a more substantial structure, until Will had a view of his beloved “Stable” from his second story study. When touring the Will Rogers Ranch House you will see that there are many doors, giving access to the outside from almost every room. Windows were placed to bring the outside inside. A large, seven by nine foot window replaced original French doors at the West end of the house. Inspired by the view over looking the ocean, the window was a present from American Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld to Will Rogers. It was in his living room that Rogers entertained the likes of Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, Darryl Zanuck and Spenser Tracy.
Upstairs in his study, Will’s desk, with his old manual Remington typewriter, is in front of a large window that looked out toward the Stable and the Riding Arena and the hills he loved. This is where Will wrote his daily telegrams and his weekly “Will Rogers Remarks” column, that ran in hundreds and hundreds of newspapers around the country. Through this window, before the trees grew so large, Will Rogers could observe his horses grazing while he worked on his newspaper articles.
In front of Will's desk in the study stands globe with pencil lines of his extensive travels. Will Rogers was aviation greatest supporter at that time and probably logged more in-flight hours than anyone. Great pilots were his friends, including Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell, and Wiley Post, a daring one-eyed Oklahoma pilot. Will Rogers was one of the few public figures who firmly backed General Billy Mitchell’s losing fight for a strong American Air Force. Rogers said bluntly that for the next war America had better learn to fly or learn to dig. Will Rogers and Mitchell were the two great champions of American Aviation in the 1930’s.
A pencil line on his world globe goes from California to Seattle to Fairbanks to the Orient, where Rogers was to see Siberia. There was not to be another pencil on line on the globe. In August 1935, he was flying with Wiley Post when their plane lost power off the coast of Barrow, Alaska and crashed. Both men were killed. Will was 55. Everyone of that era remembered where they were the day that Will Rogers died. In mourning, the world reflected on Will Rogers' words: "If you live life right, death is a joke as far as fear is concerned."
The Stable’s large central Rotunda, where Will originally thought he might rope in inclement weather, became the place where people came to saddle up horses. Polo horses were stabled and turned out after matches. A Practice Polo Cage was situated at the rear of the Stable, nestled into the Eucalyptus Trees. Secondary structures include a shed built into the retained slop to the rear of the Stable and a lean-to groom’s quarters and wash rack area connected to the back of the main structure.
Will Rogers Jr. noted the importance of the Stable: “This was the horse center of our ranch, this was the reason that Dad bought the ranch, and at the large price, so that he could have horses, so he could have polo, so he could have his roping, so he could have his relaxation. And if you do not see the stables, you really have not seen one of the major purposes of my father’s purchasing this place…you can only get an impression of this place if you go up and visit the stables, because that was the center of activity when my father was here.”
The pasture floor of Mitt Canyon drops gently down toward the Stable, which is probably the ranch’s most impressive structure. Here a level pad was cut into the sloping terrain, and cobblestone retaining walls were built to line the cut faces of the surrounding slopes. Framed by two hillsides and with Mitt Canyon as a backdrop, the Stable sits here on this pad facing out to where the land continues its descent, out onto the great expanse of lawn and over the hills and trees to the Pacific Ocean.
Also in front of the Stable, Will built an impressive elongated Riding Arena. Designed as an equestrian exercise ring, the original Riding Arena consisted of an outside track and turf center separated by threaded rope fencing. The entire Riding Arena was surrounded by white rail fencing on green posts. A line of Eucalyptus was planted along half of the long oval arena, presumably to protect the view to and from the Stable.
The Roping Arena is located up the road from the Stable and Riding Arena. Here Will could show off his roping skills to his friends and celebrity guests. Like all of the structures at the State Historic Park, the Roping Arena is simple in design and functional. Will taught all of his children how to rope cattle in this arena. Today, the Roping Arena is still used for cutting-horse demonstrations by professional cowboys and movie stars.
Another important historical structure at Will Rogers SHP is Jim Rogers Barn. From 1929 to 1930, Jim Rogers built his own smaller stables with Buddy Sterling, his friend and ranch hand. They “cobbled” together a building Will Rogers referred to as the “mule barn,” says Randall Young, a Will Rogers historian. In 1932, when the Olympics were hosted by Los Angeles, private ranches were used to board horses of international equestrian teams. The grounds of the ranch and “Jim’s Barn” were used by the Japanese Olympic Equestrian Team. Unfortunately, during the war years, construction lumber was impossible to find. Betty Rogers offered to disassemble the old mule barn and give the lumber to a relative to build a home. Started in 2004, the reconstruction of the Jim Rogers Barn was completed in conjunction with the recent major restoration of the Ranch House in 2006. It is located on the exact site of the original. Jim Rogers’ son, Chuck Rogers, drove the first nail for new Jim Rogers Barn. For more information on current preservation activities at Will Rogers SHP, call the Will Rogers Ranch Foundation at 866-988-9773.
The Polo Field at Will Rogers SHP is just one of the park’s many wonderful features. The grass covered expanse is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide and is carefully maintained by diligent park staff. It is the only regulation outdoor polo field in Los Angeles County. The Will Rogers Polo Club carries on Will’s enjoyment of polo by using the field for their matches during their annual Polo Season, which runs from April to October. Matches are free to the public (you still need to pay the vehicle parking fee) and played on Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays form 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, visit their website at http://willrogerspolo.org/ or call 818-509-9965.
Will Rogers SHP has a number of trails that crisscross the grand landscape of the park’s 186 acres. One experience not to miss is hiking, biking or riding the Inspiration Point Trail. When you follow it up to its summit, the panoramic views along this ranch trail are fantastic. Inspiration Point Trail is a 2 mile round trip on an easy 751 foot elevation gain. It is a reasonably short and wide horse path, framed by rows of Eucalyptus Trees. At the top, the views are breathtaking, with a sweeping vista of forested canyon hillsides, West Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and beyond. It is, without doubt, one of the finest views of Los Angeles.
Located just off the trail to Inspiration Point is the Rogers Road Trail, which is the beginning of the Santa Monica Mountains Backbone Trail. The Backbone Trail is L.A.'s most prized outdoors possession. This remarkable ridgeline feature begins at Will Rogers SHP and winds 35 miles through Topanga State Park and the Santa Monica Mountains, ending at Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County. Some runners have called the Backbone Trail the “best running route in the world.” Convenient overnight stopovers for backpackers are located just north of Trippet Ranch along Musch Trail, at Malibu Creek State Park, and at Point Mugu.
Horseback Riding Lessons are available at Will Rogers SHP on Monday through Saturday. Equestrians are also welcome to bring their own horses to the park for day-use to enjoy the Riding and Roping Arenas and the Inspiration Point and Rogers Road Trails. Sarah’s Point (named for the much loved family cow) can accommodate moderate size horse trailers. Will Rogers Trail Rides provide guided trail rides on safe, reliable horses on the beautiful trails of Will Rogers State Historic Park. You will experience the park in the way Will Rogers used to love to experience it, on horseback. Will Rogers guided trail rides are available every day Tuesday through Fridays. To book a guided ride call 310-662-3707 or go online at http://www.willrogerstrailrides.com more information. For more information on all of the equestrian activities at the State Historic Park call 310-904-9846.
Tours of the Will Rogers Ranch House and ranch grounds are offered by park staff and docents at selected times during the week and weekends. School group tours are also available. For more information on tours days, times, school tours and other group tour arrangements, call the State Park Interpretive Staff at (310) 230-2017.
The Will Rogers Ranch Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring the legacy of Will Rogers through interpretive activities and fundraising to assist in the ongoing restoration, rehabilitation, and preservation of Will Rogers State Historic Park. The Foundation is an all volunteer organization, supported by the Rogers Family, long-time ranch advocates, the local community, and Will Rogers fans from around the nation. The Gift Shop in the Park’s Visitor Center is managed by the Foundation. To find out more about their projects and upcoming special events at the Park call 866-988-9773 or visit them online at http://www.willrogersranchfoundation.org/