Western Roundup: McCrea Ranch
Joel McCrea has been one of my favorite actors since I was a teenaged classic film fan, and in the ensuing decades my admiration for Joel, as both an actor and a person, has only deepened.
Joel McCrea could do it all: Hitchcock, classic comedies, and of course Westerns. But while Joel loved working in the movie business, he famously listed “rancher,” not actor, as his occupation on tax returns. The center of Joel’s life was living with his family on his beloved ranch in Moorpark, California.
It was thus a dream come true when I first had the opportunity to visit Joel’s ranch when it opened for public tours in 2011. I’ve been privileged to visit McCrea Ranch on several occasions since then, and I’d like to take Western Roundup readers along on my most recent visit to the ranch in May 2019, sharing a bit of the ranch’s history along the way.
The occasion for my latest visit was the ranch’s annual Cowboy Cookout fundraiser, which helps to support ongoing restorations at the ranch, where California’s film and ranching history intersect.
Joel bought the ranch in the early ’30s with the encouragement of his mentor, Will Rogers. Joel and his bride, actress Frances Dee, moved into the ranch soon after their wedding in October 1933. They raised three sons: Jody (born 1934), David (born 1935), and when the first two boys were grown, along came Peter (born 1955). The McCreas lived on the ranch for decades, until Joel’s passing on their 57th wedding anniversary in 1990.
The McCreas grew oats and barley along with raising cattle. Whenever I visit I muse how surprised many people would be at the simplicity of the McCreas’ lifestyle; there’s nothing “movie star” about it. Their home was sprawling and comfortable yet many of the rooms are quite small by modern standards, heated with simple wood-burning stoves. The decor included a sampler hand-stitched by Joel’s mother and a bedstead which had long been in the McCrea family, shipped around Cape Horn to reach California.
Views of the McCreas’ front porch and yard, which includes a treehouse and a simple “swimming hole” only filled during the summer:
Before their deaths the McCreas donated much of their land to local groups including the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club. After Joel’s death the family donated 225 acres, including the ranch house, to the Conejo Recreation and Park District.
A Visitor Center opened on the ranch in 2011, with informative displays about the family and the ranch and a short introductory documentary. Several areas of the ranch, including the milk house and the ranch shop, are available to tour on days the ranch is open for visits. Joel’s 1947 pickup is parked at the ranch, and it still runs!
The Ranch is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today David McCrea’s son Wyatt lives on the ranch and spearheads work preserving it for future generations. He’s on the left in this photo taken at the Cowboy Cookout with stuntman Diamond Farnsworth, son of actor-stuntman Richard Farnsworth:
Actor Bruce Boxleitner, who chatted with fans at the cookout, is another supporter of the ranch, serving as the on-camera host and narrator of the Visitor Center documentary.
Here’s a look at the cookout scene. Live music was provided along with a terrific barbecue!
Many items were raffled off to raise additional funds for ranch preservation. I was thrilled to win these original posters for The Virginian (1946)!
Events are periodically held at the ranch by the Conejo Recreation and Park District, so Western fans should be sure to watch their website for upcoming events when planning a visit to Southern California. Classic film fans who’d like to help support the preservation of McCrea Ranch for future generations may visit the Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation for more information.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.