Just outside beautiful Santa Barbara, Calif., up a windy mountain road, and past a couple of old Secret Service stations, sophomore Harris Wells pulled up to a modest, adobe ranch house. Just looking at it, you’d never suspect it belonged to President Ronald Reagan.
During his presidency, the ranch was Reagan’s refuge from the White House. Wells had the opportunity to explore it on Feb. 18.
Young America’s Foundation sponsored the tour as part of its conservative training seminar in Santa Barbara.
“They showed us where the Gorbachevs hung out when they visited the Reagan ranch,” Wells said. “We even saw the exact spot where Reagan signed the largest tax cut in the nation’s history.”
The tour gave him a greater appreciation for the political impact of the humble headquarters.
“It was just really cool seeing that this was an intricate part of the history of Reagan, the place where he went to contemplate a lot of his ideas and policies,” Wells said.
The Secret Service had the task of making this old ranch house a secure political facility.
“We got to see all the different Secret Service posts with monitoring equipment and cryptic communication devices and see the panic phone by Reagan’s bed that was a direct line to the secret service,” Wells said.
A secret service that incidentally had surprising difficulties securing the five square mile ranch.
“One time a hiker got lost in the fog and ended up pitching a tent thirty yards away from President Reagan’s house,” Wells said. “When the fog lifted the next morning, they saw that there is this ‘renegade’ tent and stormed it. They detained the man before they realized he was actually just a poor lost camper.”
The Secret Service had a scare when Reagan unwittingly put the ranch security on red alert.
“Reagan stocked his pond with fish and there was a crane that would always eat them, so one day he grabbed a gun and just started shooting at the crane,” Wells said. “But his security detail didn’t know so they flipped out thinking it could be an intruder. Just seeing the personal stories like that and seeing that he was just a regular guy was great.”
After getting past the old security posts, Wells got to experience the more personal side of the ranch, a home filled to the brim with Reagan’s books and littered with family photographs.
“I knew he had great policy,” Wells said. “But this side of him has opened my eyes.”
Reagan spent lots of time outdoors on the ranch, laying all the fencing for the property himself and working in his woodshed.
“Seeing his woodshed, you could see he emptied peanut butter jars and put nuts and bolts in them,” Wells said. “He was just a normal guy. My grandfather did the same thing.”
Reagan’s personal letters were another surprise, revealing thoughts and experiences beyond his political views and addresses.
“Reagan helped out a family with a special needs child and kept in touch with them throughout his presidency,” Wells said.
YAF provided Wells with a full travel scholarship for the trip. A tour of the Reagan ranch, participation in the training seminar and a hotel room a block from the beach in Santa Barbara only cost him $50 for meals.
“Fifty bucks to go to California?” Wells said. “I’ll take that any day of the week.”
The foundation trained him in dealing with professors and administrations hostile to conservative speakers and conservative student activism.
“We just had Steve Forbes in a CCA last semester,’” Wells said. “It didn’t completely apply, but it was still really interesting to get a different perspective on what it’s like at a more mainstream college.”
Regarding the ranch, Reagan once said, “No place before or since has ever given Nancy and me the joy and serenity it does.”
Once Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the family moved, and Nancy Reagan passed the property on to YAF. They now preserve the ranch and use it to achieve one of Reagan’s biggest goals: inspiring young conservatives.
“Visiting the Reagan ranch was spectacular,” Wells said. “I was aware of his political stances before, but as a person it was certainly amazing to get the real side of him like that. I would highly recommend it.” (325)