A New Look for Seabiscuit's Home

Projects and Plans at Ridgewood Ranch
Story by Nancy Barth

Seabiscuit in retirement
Seabiscuit in retirement at Ridgewood Ranch

Two years ago, on May 25, 2002, the first walking tour of the historic Ridgewood Ranch attracted people from all over northern California—to tour the house where Charles and Marcella Howard lived during the 1930s and 1940s, go inside the stall where Seabiscuit spent the year of 1939 recovering from an injury before his final race when he won the Santa Anita Handicap, and see the color movies of Seabiscuit, Red Pollard and the Howard family taken by Dr. Raymond Babcock. Since that first tour, over three thousand people have taken the walking tours offered by the Willits Chamber of Commerce, the Mendocino County Museum and Christ's Church of the Golden Rule, owner of the former Ridgewood Ranch property containing the historic buildings.

While many Mendocino County residents knew that Ridgewood Ranch, located seven miles south of Willits on Highway 101, had been the home of Seabiscuit, state and national interest in the famous racehorse resulted from the 2001 publication of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book about Seabiscuit, the Charles Howard family and Ridgewood Ranch. During the past two years, Laura Hillenbrand's book has been released not only as a paperback but as a deluxe, illustrated hardcover, and both were on the best-seller lists.

On July 19, 2003, the major movie, Seabiscuit, opened with a special premiere in Willits and was later nominated for seven Academy Awards including "Best Picture." Although the movie was not filmed at Ridgewood Ranch, the movie did create more interest in Seabiscuit's story. A PBS Seabiscuit documentary did include scenes of ranch life in movies taken by Charles Howard's friend, Dr. Raymond Babcock. On October 5, 2002, the Mendocino County Museum in Willits opened a "Seabiscuit" exhibit which has attracted interested people from all over the West.

Those who go on the 2004 walking tours will see changes in the historic site. New photographs and racing equipment will be on display in the reception hall. The interior of the stud barn, where Seabiscuit lived during his retirement, has been completely restored by volunteers from the Willits Rotary Club. The interior stalls have been painted in the Howard family colors, scarlet and white. On May 29, 2004, the first walking tour of the year will include the dedication ceremony and grand re-opening of the stud barn.

For the first time in 2004, weekday mini-tours will be offered from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from May 31 until September 6. The weekday tours will not include the Babcock movies or refreshments but will provide access to historical buildings and a docent to explain the history of Ridgewood and Seabiscuit.

Ridgewood Ranch
Natural Habitat

Travelers who pass Ridgewood Ranch on Highway 101 can see some of the 2,250 acres of the oak woodland portion of the property. The oak woodland contains eight different species of oaks as well as madrones which bloom during the spring months. Travelers on Highway 101 also see white deer grazing among the oaks especially during early morning hours. Since Charles Howard obtained fallow deer from William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon Ranch, the herd of white deer, native to the Mediterranean region, has increased from fifty to over two hundred animals. Black-tailed deer can also be seen along Highway 101 and from ranch roads.

The ranch also includes two acres of old growth redwood and seventeen acres of second growth redwood for­est. Forsythe and Walker Creeks, both used by steelhead, and their tributaries have provided 570 acres of riparian habitat for birds and aquatic species. During the rainy months, the grasslands contain vernal pools which provide habitat for rare plants.

In addition to the two species of deer and the steelhead, Ridgewood Ranch provides habitat for golden eagles, blue herons, mountain lions, bears, foxes, yellow-legged frogs, numerous jack rabbits and many other species of wildlife.

Land Use
at Ridgewood Ranch

Before Charles Howard bought the property in 1921, the ranch was owned by William Van Arsdale who grazed livestock and grew alfalfa there and used the house he built in 1905 as a second home. This house was where Charles Howard and his family lived during the next thirty years.

Charles Howard, a multimillionaire as a result of his success in the automobile business, developed Ridgewood Ranch as a showplace working farm where he could entertain such famous friends as Bing Crosby and Clark Gable. The ranch, then sixteen thousand acres in size, was used for grazing horses, cattle and sheep. The ranch had a dairy, vegetable gardens and fruit orchards and provided food not only for the Howards and their employees but also for Howard Memorial Hospital in Willits. Mendocino resident, Dave Sverko, who worked at Ridgewood in 1939 shoeing horses, remembers Ridgewood as "a deluxe cattle ranch" with first-class buildings and fences at a time when most remote ranches had crude and makeshift facilities.

Charles Howard always had working horses on the ranch and often surveyed his land on horseback but didn't get involved in horse racing until 1934 when he invested in the building of Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California. By 1934, he owned horses which ran at Bay Meadows and, in 1936, he purchased the three-year-old colt, Seabiscuit, in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Although Charles Howard's race horses were sold after his death in 1950, horses still graze on the pastures of Ridgewood Ranch. The Willits 4-H Club offers a therapeutic riding program for disabled children near where Seabiscuit and his off­spring were pastured in the 1930s.