From Hollywood to Healdsburg, with love
Sept./Oct. 2005 California Country magazine
By Jim Morris
Fred MacMurray, one of America's beloved cinematic stars, found peace and solitude from his Hollywood career on his Healdsburg ranch.
Every once in a great while, a perfect moment occurs that leaves an indelible mark on a person's life. Such an occurrence happened for a spunky 3 year-old about to take her first horse ride with help from her celebrity father, Fred MacMurray.
"Dad put me on a saddle in front of him," Kate MacMurray said. "His big hands covered mine with the reins and he made a clicking sound to make Candy, a beautiful quarter horse, step forward. I still recall the smell of the horse and of my Dad's leather chaps; that's a great memory!"
For Kate, such memories are as omnipresent as the fresh air, natural splendor and breathtaking views at Twin Valley Ranch in Healdsburg, Sonoma County. There, her father, one of America's beloved cinematic stars, found peace and solitude from his Hollywood career.
Kate grew up in Sonoma and Los Angeles and was a successful screenwriter. Her life reads like a script for a Frank Capra film--a woman's passionate pursuit of preserving a ranch with a rich history.
The 1,500-acre ranch has had only three owners in the last 150 years. The fence line and majority of the property remain just as they were in the early days. This is the place of meandering streams, melodic birds, and a tastefully restored and renovated ranch house and barn, all flanked by tall, undisturbed timberland.
It began in 1846 when Colonel Hugh Porter homesteaded the land, after returning a hero from the war with Mexico. The ranch was nearly 100 years old when Fred bought it from the Porters in 1941. He brought his new bride, actress June Haver, to this pristine setting to raise Kate and her twin sister, Laurie, and farm the land. The ranch's noteworthy guest list included John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.
Kate, who feels her father's warmth throughout the property, has fond memories of growing up and life on the ranch.
"First of all, we never had television out here," Kate said. "If we wanted to see a ball game, golf game or some favorite TV show, we had to go to our aunt and uncle's house in Sebastopol. Dad wanted us to read, hike and to have a relationship with nature. We had our horses here; we worked the cattle, milked cows at 4 a.m. and gathered the eggs. This wasn't something we were playing at; this was our life. This was what was important to us as a family.
"Dad would let us out in the morning and we'd be gone all day. He'd ring this big bell and we'd come in at night. We were just roaming around the ranch all over the place. It was great, a wonderful way to grow up."
Fred's spare time on the ranch was spent immersed in the great outdoors, fly-fishing in the Russian River. His passion for angling is easy to spot on the ranch, which remains filled with fishing gear, vintage wildlife magazines and some of his prized catches from nearby streams.
Fred was very much a man of the earth, growing a wide range of foods in his half-century at the ranch. A summertime favorite was tomatoes. Fred had so much pride in his green thumb that when the first of the crop was picked, he would have the family sit at the dinner table, blindfold them, prepare the yellow, red and green tomatoes in different ways and quiz them on which type they were eating. Homemade pasta sauce and canned tomato preserves were so treasured, the family often made them and gave them to Fred as a birthday gift.
Kate said that her father would prepare sumptuous meals for his family, pairing it with the perfect wine long before that practice carried such social grace. She remembers a six-week vacation where Fred put a large amount of beef raised on the ranch in their motor home, and the meat provided virtually every meal along the way.
Fred added a sense of Hollywood drama when he called on a cinematographer friend and landscaper to craft the driveway into the ranch so it had what the film industry calls a "slow reveal." Those who drove in toward the ranch saw only glimpses before they finally got a magnificent open shot of the valley.
Fred's biggest ranching successes came from prize-winning cattle, including Aberdeen Angus, which provided him with a link to his Scottish ancestry and a never-ending beef supply for the dinner table. At the height of Fred's beef operation, the herd swelled to 400 head and many awards were bestowed and proudly displayed.
The livestock was more than a job for Fred; it was a statement on sustainability.
He hosted a steady stream of 4H and Future Farmers of America events at the ranch, trying to impart his "living off of the fat of the land" philosophy to a new ranching generation.
"Dad always knew what was real," Kate said. "Hollywood was very superficial and very fleeting, and Dad always realized that it could go away at any time. The truest part of his nature--the love affair--was always with the land, always with agriculture, always here in the Russian River Valley."
His ranching and outdoor pursuits were far removed from the Fred MacMurray most of us have known. His long entertainment career began in Vaudeville and included more than 100 movie roles, including "Double Indemnity," "The Absent-Minded Professor" and "The Caine Mutiny." Art imitated life when Fred portrayed the dedicated father Stephen Douglas on "My Three Sons." The series included nearly 400 episodes from 1960 to 1972 and was the sixth longest running show in television history. It was a role Kate said fit her father perfectly.
"He had an endearing nature that people were very drawn to," she said. "I ran into someone the other day at one of our wine events and he said, You know, I didn't have a dad. Your father raised me for 12 years and I hope I can raise my boys that way.' That was the most beautiful compliment. I'm not sure Daddy was aware of the effect that he had on so many generations of children."
Although the MacMurray family no longer owns Twin Valley Ranch, the agriculture and open space Fred loved so much will continue for generations to come. The Gallo winemaking family bought the ranch in 1996 and planted 480 acres of pinot noir and pinot gris. The vineyards have flourished and bear fruit made into MacMurray Ranch wines, which are described as full of elegance and finesse.
"I think he would have been very proud," Kate said. "It's an interesting thing, because people talk about legacies and they talk about memories and they talk about how you leave your mark, and I think as much as my father loved his film work and made some brilliant, brilliant pictures throughout his film career, this is what he would have been most proud of. It's continued in a way that I think he hoped it would be, that this ranch would remain in agriculture, the fence line is intact and it's family-owned. That's what he wanted for the ranch."
Kate has returned to live full-time in a cabin built by her father and serves as traveling ambassador for MacMurray Ranch wines, a job that suits her perfectly.
"The sky is the limit as far as we're concerned," she said. "We have the land, history, soil, climate and a brilliant winemaker, Susan Doyle. We have everything going for us here."
Kate said she has found the peace that comes with knowing she's back where she belongs, awaiting another perfect moment like her first horse ride with her dad.
"It's wonderful to know that you can go back home and you can continue a relationship with the land that's so much a part of your history. Now it's part of my present and my future," she said. "My life has come full circle. Prayers do get answered."
For more information, visit www.macmurrayranch.com.
(Jim Morris is the host of the popular weekly television program, California Country. He may be reached at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at email@example.com.)