The Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation

In September 2021, I was delighted to join the West Coast Classic Film Bloggers Zoom Association (WCCFBZA) for an exciting trip to the Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation. I had not visited my favorite state on the map since 2019, so I was more than ready to soak up the sunshine and classic film history with my dear classic film fan friends.

The story of the ranch is intertwined with the love story of Joel McCrea and Frances Dee–two highly talented classic film stars in their own right. In the 1930s, Joel received some advice from close friend and mentor Will Rogers to have a “fallback” plan in case acting did not sustain him. As a result, McCrea purchased land and established a ranch in the Santa Rosa Valley in Ventura County, California. He and Frances made the ranch their home, farther from Hollywood, and raised their three sons on the working ranch. In addition to actively maintaining and caring for their ranch and animals, the McCrea family was–and continues to be–active in the local community.

In the 1950s and 1960s, portions of the ranch were sold to further develop Thousand Oaks, California. In fact, part of the land was donated by the McCreas to build the local YMCA, where Frances would attend yoga classes.

Today, roughly 280 acres of the original rance remain in the family. In order to preserve the remaining property, the McCrea family reached an agreement with the Conejo Recreation and Park District to acquire the property. The buildings on the ranch are all on the National Register of Historic Places and able to be viewed by the public, in addition to the visitor’s center. The Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation regularly hosts tours, events, and programs at the ranch.

The mission of the Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation is “to honor and preserve the legacy of Joel and Frances McCrea by raising and managing funds to support the Conejo Recreation and Park District in the restoration, preservation, and rehabilitation, as well as the interpretive and educational programs of the Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch.”

In the visitors’ center, visitors can watch an informational video about the McCreas and the ranch. The center also contains a small gift shop which, among many other items, sells books about both Joel and Frances.

My friends Doug and Laura organized this fabulous event and made it extra special by coordinating with Wyatt McCrea–grandson of Frances and Joel–and docent Betsy Metzgar to give us a tour. Wyatt is so kind and knowledgeable regarding the McCrea legacy and Betsy–who is actually also from the Chicago area, like myself–is also a delight and an exceptional guide.

We started off our tour in the garage, which still contains vehicles original to the McCreas.

I also enjoyed hearing about this large wooden plank hanging in the garage. Each Thanksgiving, that plank would come down and be propped up as a large table. The family could gather around the table and enjoy their meal together. You can see the plank hanging in this photo:

Among the buildings on the ranch is the milk house, which still contains milking equipment and bottles.

Additionally, we were able to tour the bunk house before enjoying a lovely outdoor lunch together. The bunk house is small in size but filled with items that were of significance to the McCreas. After Joel passed away, Frances preferred to live in the bunk house, rather than the large ranch house further into the property. At the time of my visit, the main ranch house was closed for renovations and is slated to open in 2022; nonetheless, it was interesting to see this more intimate abode that also held meaning to the McCreas. Visitors can also see phone numbers that Frances herself scrawled onto the walls for convenience.

Near the bunk house, visitors will also notice two chairs outside. Here, Joel used to sit and relax after working on the ranch. Whenever he would see a visitor walking down the road, he would invite him or her to “set a spell” and chat with him.

The McCrea Ranch was a place of peace for the McCrea family and remains a beautiful respite from the hustle and bustle of nearby Los Angeles. There are also stories of Hollywood life creeping onto the ranch: one afternoon, some of Joel and Frances’ fellow actor friends–including Clark Gable–rode their motorcycles to the ranch. They were kindly asked to leave because their motorcycles were scaring the cows! Nonetheless, the location is used for tours and events today and films are also occasionally shot there.

It was a joy to see this ranch so lovingly preserved and continuing to involve the present McCrea family. Joel and Frances’ legacy lives on through their filmography, ranch, and beloved family and continues to bring joy to the local community in addition to classic film fans like myself. I am so grateful to indulge in the McCrea legacy with great friends and am so excited to see the McCrea main ranch house when it is fully restored. Many thanks to the Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation for keeping this gem alive.

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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