The Van Trump Report

The Famous Ranches of Hollywood’s “Old West” Heyday

Ever wonder where your favorite Western film or television show was filmed? The answer is probably one of the dozens of ranches that Hollywood has regularly used since the dawn of the film era. These “movie ranches” first popped up within a 30 mile area around early Hollywood, with studios purchases large tracts of still mostly rural Southern California starting in the 1920s. Some were actually existing, working ranches but most had very few cattle and even fewer cowboys.

Two types of movie ranches existed in those early days – those bought by film companies specifically for location shooting, and ranches created to be rented out studios and production companies that couldn’t afford their own. According to George Fenin and William Everson, authors of “The Western”, the most popular ranch by far was the Iverson Movie Ranch. An estimated 2,500 movies and television shows shot all or part of their scenes at the ranch.

Iverson Ranch was developed on land first homesteaded by Augusta Wagman, a Swedish immigrant. She’d been tending her 150 acres for about 8 years when she married a Norweigian immigrant named Carl Iverson. They began adding to their holding and by 1912, were allowing movies to be filmed on their sprawling 500 acre property. It didn’t take long for the Iversons to figure out that the film business was a lot more lucrative than farming and ranching and by 1920, it was THE location for Westerns and other outdoor scenes. It was especially popular for war movie battle scenes and as a stand in for Africa, India, the Middle East, and other “exotic” places far removed from California.  

Perhaps most famously, John Wayne’s “Stagecoach,” considered by many to be the best Western ever made, shot scenes at Iverson Ranch. Numerous television shows were hosted at Iverson Ranch, including “The Roy Rogers Show,” “The Gene Autry Show,” “The Cisco Kid”, and “Zorro”. The long-running TV western “The Virginian” filmed on location at Iverson in the ranch’s later period, as did “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke”. Iverson Ranch is now gone, lost to developers and the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. However, the Lone Ranger Rock where Silver reared at the opening of the “Lone Ranger” program is still there. Part of the ranch was preserved as parkland, including the famous “Garden of the Gods” where the rock is located.

Another early movie ranch was the Famous Players-Lasky Movie Ranch, which also operated as Lasky Movie Ranch. It was originally part of the 113,009-acre Rancho San José de Gracia, also known as El Rancho Simí, which was conferred by the King of Spain in 1795 but ended up in the hands of José de la Guerra y Noriega in 1842, who then received a U.S. land title for the acreage in 1865. The huge ranch was used primarily for pasturing livestock such as sheep and cattle, and areas were later used for oil drilling. In the late 1800s, de la Guerra sold the entire property to Thomas R. Bard, one of the most powerful men in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.  

Bard divided the ranch into separate sections for future development but in the meantime, it became a hugely popular filming location thanks to its close proximity to Hollywood. In 1913, Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn teamed up with Cecil B. DeMille to form the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company and purchased 4,000 acres of the property. They began work on a movie called “Rose of the Rancho” in 1914 and apparently built a two-story Spanish-style mansion on the property for the film and future projects that might need a large location. They also kept a stock farm. Other early films shot at Lasky Mesa included “The Thundering Herd” (1925), “Silver Spurs (1936), “Santa Fe Trail” (1940), and “They Died with Their Boots On” (1941). One of the most famous scenes in all of cinema, when Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) raises her fist to the sky and vows to never go hungry again, was filmed at Lasky Mesa.  

In 1963, the Ahmanson family’s Home Savings and Loan purchased the property so it became known as Ahmanson Ranch. The land passed through more owners amid numerous development plans over the ensuing years but public advocacy to preserve the open space eventually won out. The Lasky Movie Ranch is now part of the very large Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, with various trails to the Lasky Mesa locale. The property was sold to a conservancy in 2003 but some filming has occurred since, including scenes for the 2006 film Mission: Impossible III.

Another popular movie ranch was owned by Paramount Studios. The 2,700 acre ranch built numerous large-scale sets on the property, including a huge replica of early San Francisco and a Welsh mining village, built by 20th Century Fox for 1941’s “How Green Was My Valley”. But it was the ranch’s Western Town, built during the early 1950s by aspiring cowboy-turned-entrepreneur William Hertz, that cemented the lot’s place in movie history. The ranch posed as Tombstone, Arizona, and Dodge City, Kansas, as well as Tom Sawyer’s Missouri, 13th-century China, and many other locales and eras around the world. The National Park Service took over a section of the lot in 1980 and restored the sets, working from old black and white photographs. More recent productions at the ranch included “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman”, “Bones”, and HBO’s “Westworld”. Unfortunately, the Paramount structures were almost totally destroyed during the November 2018 Woolsey Fire. There are only two buildings that remain, the train station and the church, which you can still visit.      
Most of the historic movie ranches have been sold and subdivided since the heyday of American Westerns. A few others have been preserved as open space in regional parks, and are sometimes still used for filming. Studios have also branched out beyond crowded California and developed movie ranches in other regions, such as New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, and Texas. (Sources: Valley News, MovieSites, LA Daily Mirror, Wikipedia)

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