This week I am still in California and visiting the McCrea Ranch where I explored Joel’s private office and learned a lot about the early days of Hollywood. I hope that some of the contacts I have made during this trip will pan out and bring me back here soon.
Down The Road with the Original Buffalo Dale
Welcome back. Will Rogers had become an important friend and advisor to 27 year old Joel McCrea by the time McCrea bought his own ranch in 1933. He and his wife Frances purchased several hundred acres in an unincorporated area of Ventura County just outside of the town of Moorpark, CA which lay just north of Will’s place in Santa Monica. Joel was seeing Will on a weekly basis when he hired architect John Byers to design his house. He wanted a simple place where he could support himself and his family by running the ranch in case his movie career ever went south.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s Frances made over 50 films including Four Faces West co-starring with Joel. Like her husband, Frances loved their new ranch and gradually her career took a back seat to her projects there, like lining the driveway with eucalyptus trees and planting a garden. Joel also preferred to be on the ranch, milking the cows before breakfast, taking care of the chickens and working on his haying machine. He grew barley and wheat and the health conscious couple also grew most of their own food.
Nevertheless, Joel continued to work in movies and his starring roles in films like Buffalo Bill, Colorado Territory and Ride The High Country made him a giant in the film industry. Friends like Gary Cooper and Alfred Hitchcock loved Joel’s and Frances’ down to earth characters and visited them at the ranch whenever Joel wasn’t on location.
The 1960s brought change to the McCrea Ranch when Joel donated a large piece of the ranch for the construction of a new YMCA in Moorpark. He also began selling some outlying parcels of the now very valuable property. The money from these sales along with what he had earned in his film career made him one of the richest actors in Hollywood.
In 1973 he became Chairman of the Board of the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and he was also very involved with events at the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore traveling there often. Through the years following his death, Joel continued to think of Will and his love and respect for him was evident in remarks he made at the Will Rogers Museum when he said “I owe everything I have and am to Will Rogers”.
Joel’s last movie was Mustang County with Robert Fuller and Patrick Wayne and it is a little known fact that he always used his own horses in his westerns. Dollar and Sandy were his favorites and they are both buried on the ranch.
Because they never smoked or drank and lived very healthy lifestyles, the later years were very good to both Joel and Frances. His favorite spot on the ranch became the bunkhouse which was full of mementos and awards along with a few old leather chairs where he liked to receive guests. They would visit about the early days of Hollywood and up to the end Joel was always the same friendly, all American guy William Randolph Hearst had met in 1927.
After their deaths both Joel and Frances were cremated and had their ashes scattered on the property where they had been so happy together. Today the eucalyptus trees that Frances planted are 80 years old and 70 feet tall. The house the couple loved sits as it always did and walking around the barns and the bunkhouse you wouldn’t be surprised if Joel came around the corner.
Their story has never before been told to the general public but the McCrea family has donated the ranch to the Conejo Recreation and Park District and a new Visitors Center will be opening there soon. Check out McCreaRanchFoundation.org for the date of the official grand opening.
Next week another Okie connection pops up in Los Angeles. Till then I’ll see ya down the road…