Western Roundup: McCrea Ranch

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.

Joel McCrea Ranch Welcome Sign
Welcome to the McCrea Ranch!

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.

Joel McCrea Ranch Horse
“I always felt so much more comfortable in the Western. The minute I got a horse and a hat and a pair of boots on, I felt easier. I didn’t feel like I was an actor anymore.
I felt like I was the guy out there doing it.”
– McCrea

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 McCrea Ranch View
Beautiful view from the Ranch

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.

Joel McCrea Frances Dee
Joel McCrea and Frances Dee in Wells Fargo (1937)

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.

Joel McCrea Ranch House
The front of the McCrea home

Views of the McCreas’ front porch and yard, which includes a treehouse and a simple “swimming hole” only filled during the summer:

Joel McCrea Ranch Porch
Joel McCrea Ranch Yard
Joel McCrea Ranch Porch View

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!

Joel McCrea Ranch Visitor Center Sign
McCrea Ranch Visitor Center sign
Joel McCrea Ranch Exhibit Home and Family
McCrea’s family and home life exhibit
Joel McCrea Ranch Ranching Life Exhibit
“Ranching Life” exhibit
Joel McCrea Ranch Frances Dee Exhibit
Frances Dee exhibit
Joel McCrea Ranch Memorabilia
McCrea Memorabilia

The Ranch is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Joel McCrea Ranch National Register of Historic Places
McCrea Ranch noticed in 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:

Wyatt McCrea and Diamond Farnsworth
Wyatt McCrea and Diamond 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.

Bruce Boxleitner
Bruce Boxleitner

My husband Doug visiting with William Wellman Jr. at the cookout. Wellman’s father directed Joel in Reaching For The Sun (1941), The Great Man’s Lady (1942), and Buffalo Bill (1944).

William Wellman Jr. McCrea Ranch Cowboy Cookout 2019
My husband Doug visiting with William Wellman Jr. at the cookout.

Here’s a look at the cookout scene. Live music was provided along with a terrific barbecue!

McCrea Ranch Cowboy Cookout 2019 View
McCrea Ranch Cowboy Cookout 2019

Many items were raffled off to raise additional funds for ranch preservation. I was thrilled to win these original posters for The Virginian (1946)!

McCrea Ranch Raffle including an original The Virginian Poster
Raffle including an original The Virginian Poster!

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.

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13 Responses to Western Roundup: McCrea Ranch

  1. M.T. Fisher says:

    That would be a great place to visit!

    Joel McCrea signed my poster from RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY front and back. It’s my favorite piece of movie memorabilia.

  2. Vienna says:

    Great article and photos, Laura. What a wonderful place it must be.

  3. Hamlette says:

    Thanks so much for this virtual tour, Laura! I love that actors like McCrea, Alan Ladd, and John Wayne owned actual ranches as well as making cowboy movies — though I think McCrea was possibly the most passionate about it. Lovely photos, btw!

    • M.T. Fisher says:

      Hamlette, my dad was a cattle broker, and bought cattle for Wayne’s feed lot. He never dealt with him personally, but once, a trucker of Dad’s had Wayne ask for him to show how his rig worked.

  4. Jerry Entract says:

    What a great choice of subject for this month’s piece, Laura! Love the many great photos of a beautiful place.

    I first became a solid Joel McCrea fan more than 60 years ago and he remains in position with me. Maybe a lot of his quiet authority and authenticity came from the fact that he was a serious rancher.
    By the way, another Jerry favourite who was also a serious rancher was Bill Elliott.

  5. SimpleGifts says:

    On behalf of the staff and volunteers at the Joel McCrea Ranch thank you for the wonderful article, Laura! We appreciate your ongoing support! Jane

  6. walter says:

    Laura, I really enjoyed your wonderful write-up about the Joel McCrea Ranch. The photographs chosen are excellent. I’ve always liked that the original 3,000 acre McCrea Ranch was a working ranch and that Joel McCrea would list his occupation as rancher on his tax returns.

    I’m reminded of a story that actor James Mitchell told about working with Joel McCrea on STARS IN MY CROWN(1950), which was one of Joel’s favorite movies. If my memory serves me right, during Mitchell’s telephone interview with producer/host Ray Nielsen of the GOOD TIMES PICTURE SHOW(1976-98), he related that Joel had just arrived on the MGM set, where the movie was being filmed. Mr. Mitchell observed that McCrea had probably been up early doing chores on his ranch, because his boots still had some manure on them. Yes, Joel McCrea was a rancher.

    Laura, on another blog site, you mentioned that the movie trailer for STARS IN MY CROWN was filmed at the McCrea Ranch. Also, I’ve read where portions of THE GREAT MAN’S LADY(1942) with Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea were filmed at the ranch.

    Thank you for sharing your visit to The Joel McCrea ranch with us. Look forward to your next write-up.

  7. Laura Grieve says:

    Thank you all so much for your comments, I’m delighted you each enjoyed this piece, especially as Joel McCrea and the ranch are topics near and dear to my heart.

    M.T., what a wonderful treasure you have in that signed poster. I hope you’ll be able to visit the ranch in the future.

    Thank you, Vienna! The ranch should definitely be on your list if you’re able to visit CA one day. 🙂

    Hamlette, I’m so glad I could share. I suspect his real-life background gave Joel a certain authenticity, just as Walter shares in his anecdote.

    Jerry, that’s great to know about Bill Elliott, who I have come to appreciate more and more over time. I recently picked up a little book on his life. I’m glad to know you enjoyed the McCrea Ranch photos!

    Jane, thank you so much, it’s my great pleasure to be able to help spread the word on the ranch and the work going on there to preserve some special pieces of California history.

    Walter, I’m glad you enjoyed it too! I didn’t know that about THE GREAT MAN’S LADY and will look into it. The fact that William Wellman directed it and his son has made multiple visits to the ranch makes that connection extra-special.

    Best wishes,

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  9. Peg says:

    So informative and wonderful pictures…Thanks!

  10. Laura Grieve says:

    Thank you, Peg, delighted to know you enjoyed it!

    Best wishes,

  11. Sara Stewart says:

    I would love to visit there one day. What a beautiful piece of history and thank you for sharing it with the rest of us!

  12. Laura Grieve says:

    You’re very welcome, this is a place I really love, and I hope more fans of Westerns and the McCreas will visit! It’s very special.

    Best wishes,

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