Will Rogers was one of America’s most beloved celebrities during the 20th Century and the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma is truly impressive, but after becoming world famous, Rogers settled right here in Southern California. I recently visited his 186 acre estate at the Will Rogers State Historic Park in nearby Pacific Palisades.
Entering the quiet, green park complex, the first thing I spotted was the polo field, which is also used for many other types of sporting activities. A parking lot separates the huge field from a picnic area, visitor center, stables and ranch house.
While waiting for my scheduled tour of the ranch house, I stopped at the visitor center to familiarize myself with the historical period and review the worldwide impact of Rogers’ life leading up to his untimely death in 1935. I also watched videos of the unbelievable trick-roping exploits that first propelled him to stardom.
Rogers was one-quarter Cherokee and proud of it. He used to say: “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.”
A gift shop in the visitor center offers a limited selection of souvenirs for true fans like me. The shop is quite small compared to its counterpart in Oklahoma, but if you want to take home a token remembrance, you will find something.
The ranch house was the main focus of my visit. As Hollywood’s highest-paid actor, he could afford to live anywhere, but he chose this modest little hacienda. According to Rogers: “It’s not really a ranch, but we call it that. It sounds big and don’t really do no harm.”
Docent-led tours of the ranch house are limited to a manageable number of tourists on a first come, first served basis. Hours and details are available on the California State Parks website.
Entering the home felt like entering any close friend’s home for the first time. The living room was rustic, cozy, intimate and perfectly preserved to honor the period of his residence – the 1920’s and 30’s. There’s no huge flat-screen TV here.
The docent began the tour with a brief account of Rogers’ life and his relationship with nearby Hollywood. He explained that the building was originally a six-room cabin, but gradually expanded into the 31 room ranch house of today. Some parts of the house were off limits, but we saw enough to get a sense of his lifestyle. The kitchen was especially interesting because there were no modern appliances. The room I liked most was Rogers’ study; I thought it was quite telling that he chose to have a view of the stables up the hill from the house and not the ocean which lies down the hill.
Following my tour of the ranch house, I walked up a grassy incline that doubles as a two-hole golf course, toward the stable. I passed a trail on the hillside where a family of deer were boldly grazing in a nearby wooded area. It’s hard to believe this mini-forest is only a few miles from the civic center of Pacific Palisades.
Will Rogers and his immediate family members are all buried in his hometown of Claremore, Oklahoma but his favorite horses, Soapsuds and Bootlegger, are buried in a special plot next to the stables, an appropriate tribute from a trick roper who went on to become a vaudeville entertainer, philosopher, columnist, radio personality and movie star.
Rogers famously said: “I never met a man I didn’t like” and after more than 80 years, folks still “like him back.”