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May 6, 2009
My husband Scott turned our minivan off scenic Highway 101, just south of Willits, CA, and pulled onto a narrow road. He braked at a T in the road, and we gazed out at the view before us. Forested mountains encircled a large, grassy-green valley that’s dotted with the shiny rooftops of buildings, both small and large. “That must be the ranch,” I told Scott.
I hadn’t expected the setting for Ridgewood Ranch to be so magnificent, nor the ranch to be so large. But, then, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Ridgewood Ranch, after all, was once owned by the multi-millionaire automobile magnate, Charles S. Howard during the early 1900s. The ranch was also where Howard’s famed come-from-behind racehorse Seabiscuit lived out the final years of his life.
We drove down the road leading to the ranch and parked in front of a small, shiny red barn with white trim. Perched on the roof of the barn was a cupola topped with a race horse weather vane. It was there at the barn that we met up with Erin Livingston. Her father would be giving us a tour of the ranch, so she took us over to the nearby dining hall to meet him. On the way, we found out Erin herself is a horse person, so we ended up talking about horses our whole walk there.
At the dining hall, Erin introduced us to her father Tracy Livingston, an older gentleman with a graying beard and a friendly smile. He shared a bit about the history of the ranch and how the Northern Pomo Native Americans once lived on the land. After that, it was owned by several different ranchers. It was in 1921 that Charles Howard acquired the 5,000-acre property for a country home as well as a cattle ranch. Howard also transformed the ranch into a large, thoroughbred breeding and training facility.
After the Howards owned it, the ranch was purchased by two men in the 1950s. They logged a lot of the property.
The current owner of Ridgewood Ranch is Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule, which bought the property back in 1962. Many of the church’s parishioners, including Tracy, live on the ranch. Over the years, church members have worked to preserve the ranch’s buildings, and they’ve planted Ponderosa Pines on the logged lands, preserved redwood trees, and restored creeks.
Recently, the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation was formed, and Tracy became its president. The Foundation — with help from the Willits Chamber of Commerce, the Mendocino Company Museum, and the Rotary Club — has been working to preserve the history of Ridgewood Ranch and the famed racehorse. Tracy told us that the recent hit movie, “Seabiscuit,” starring Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges, even premiered at the ranch.
Tracy took us over to a corner of the dining hall, where memorabilia from Seabiscuit’s racing days were on display. There were many photos, along with the red racing silks of the Howard family. There was also a racing saddle, which Tracy let me hold; I hadn’t realized how small they are!
From the dining hall, Tracy led us outside and up a grassy knoll to see the gorgeous new statue of Seabiscuit, which was presented to the public in a large ceremony in 2007.
Just up from the statue is a sprawling craftsman-style ranch home where Charles K. Howard and his family once lived. My favorite part of the house was its massive, outdoor rock fireplace on the front porch of the home. I imagined the Howard family sitting on the porch on a cool, fall evening, with wooden chairs pulled up to the fire, as they shared stories about Seabiscuit.
Tracy also led us over to a huge barn filled with rows and rows of stalls. He said they recently had a new roof put on the barn to help preserve it. What caught my attention most about this barn were all the triangular red and white Howard logos that, although faded in color, still adorned the stall doors after so many years. In some grassy pastures near the barn are two horses, which Tracy told us are descendants of Seabiscuit.
Nearing the end of the tour, we walked back up a dirt road to where our car was parked beside the small, red barn. Tracy unlocked the double front doors of the barn for us. He explained that his church had used the barn as a print shop for many years. Recently, they had it fully-restored so it looks like the special stud barn that Charles Howard originally had built for Seabiscuit after the horse’s famed win at Santa Anita in the 1930s.
Outside, the little barn, Tracy pointed up at the Howard logo painted above the doors. Instead of its being white and red, it’s white a black. Tracy explained that Howard’s wife Marcella had it painted in the more somber colors after Seabiscuit died.
After we said our goodbyes and my husband and I were heading back up to the main road, I thought of how very alive Seabiscuit’s memory is at the ranch. Thank goodness for people like Tracy and the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation for making this happen for all of us. As Tracy had told us, “The wish of Charles Howard was to save this ranch. It’s our wish, too.”
Therapeutic Riding Program at Ridgewood Ranch
As often happens, when I’m covering one event, I learn about another. While Tracy Livingston was showing us around Ridgewood Ranch, I learned that his daughter Erin holds a therapeutic riding program on the property. Called Ridgewood T.R.A.I.L. Riders Association, the program was started a number of years ago by Erin and other youngsters at the time who were involved with 4H. Erin continues to teach for the program and is working on getting her N.A.H.R.A. certificate. Learn more about T.R.A.I.L. and how you can become involved by calling Erin at (707) 391-3873.
Learn more about Ridgewood Ranch by visiting www.seabiscuitheritage.org. To schedule a tour or the ranch, contact Willits Chamber of Commerce by calling (707) 459-7910, or visit their Web site at www.willits.org (see below for tour details).
Tour Ridgewood Ranch!
1. Mini Weekday Tours
Price: $15.00 per person, Children under 11 are free.
Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday from June through September.
Start at 9:30 AM for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
No reservations required.
Call 707-459-5992 for more information.
2. Monthly Saturday Tours
Price: $25.00 per person
Once a month, May through October.
On the Saturday tours space is limited and is by reservation only, on a first come
first served basis. Tours are from 9am to noon and are held rain or shine!
No animals allowed on tour.