The only thing missing is Rogers' stuffed roping calf. It's off getting new ears from the taxidermist.
To rededicate the 31-room house in style, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Rogers family and the nonprofit Will Rogers Cooperative Assn. are planning a Western-style public celebration, complete with trail rides, trick-roping and polo demonstrations and music by the Lost Canyon Rangers.
The house is the centerpiece of Will Rogers State Historic Park, a 186.5-acre parcel that Rogers' widow, Betty, deeded to the state in 1944. With a new bedroom here, and a new sunroom there, the ranch house grew over the years from a simple six-room weekend cabin into a year-round residence.
Built in a board-and-batten style, the cream-colored house sits on a gentle slope between the "barn that jokes built," where Rogers kept his horses, and the polo field where he and such celebrities as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy set them to galloping.
One aim of the celebration, of course, is to show off the painstakingly restored house. Another is to lure back the public. The number of visitors dropped dramatically in recent years as the house and grounds fell into disrepair and then as the state and volunteers worked to restore the structures and the grounds.
"We just want to put him back on the map," said Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry, Rogers' great-granddaughter who lives in Bakersfield. "The house being closed has taken him off the map, even to the locals in the Palisades who haven't been able to enjoy the park as they used to."
To the family and Rogers' admirers, this new lease on life for the ranch house and the park was long overdue. Betty Rogers' deed to the state came with conditions: The state would maintain the structures and grounds as a memorial to Rogers. If the property were not properly preserved, it would revert to the family.
In 1952, the state authorized horse boarding at the park. Over the years, pipe stalls and sheds rose in pastures and canyons to accommodate the steeds of boarders who included Arnold Schwarzenegger (not yet governor) and his wife, Maria Shriver, as well as Billy Crystal and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the park fell into disrepair. The public complained that the park had become the playground of a few influential people.
Five years ago, Chuck Rogers, a grandson of the humorist, threatened to sue the parks department contending that the property had been neglected.
Randy Young, a local historian who had befriended the Rogers family, began an effort to end the private boarding.
After months of wrangling, the state halted the program and agreed to invest in an extensive restoration.
During a recent tour, Taylor Louden, the project architect, said that it was a challenge to accommodate all the work that needed to be done with the state's relatively limited budget. Under his guidance, construction workers dismantled walls and lifted floorboards. They installed new drainage pipes and heating and cooling equipment. They added walls to protect the house from earthquake damage.
Once musty and damp, the house now feels dry and airy.
Louden and Rochelle Nicholas-Booth, the state parks curator at the house, studied dozens of historic photos of the grounds and the home's interior. "What we discovered was that over the years there had been many transformations," Nicholas-Booth said.
Park staff had added textiles, saddles and other Western memorabilia to the main living-dining room, giving it a crowded look. The look now is comfortable and lived-in but less cluttered.
"This is the closest to how we feel they might have lived here, without being exact," Nicholas-Booth said. She acknowledged that there have been concessions to historical accuracy. Hanging in the dining room are large oil portraits of Betty and Will, painted after the humorist's death.
Rogers was an inveterate collector, and friends, including artists Russell and Borein, showered him with gifts.