He helped orchestrate Ronald Reagan’s 1980 visit to The Neshoba County Fair, but it’s still hard for Pete Perry to believe that days later he and several other Neshoba countians who made an adventurous cross-country trip to deliver a rocking chair and a carriage were sipping lemonade with the Reagans on the back porch of their California ranch.

Nancy Reagan was serving the lemonade in jeans and her husband looked more like a working man than a former movie star or the future president of the United States.

The rocking chair and surrey were a gift to the Reagans and although the Fair was still going on, Mrs. Reagan’s secretary had been calling wanting to have the chair delivered.

So Perry and some friends, in a late-Fair-week haze, borrowed a motor home, rented a trailer and struck out for the West.

Alice Perry said when they arrived it was as if they’d stepped into a personal part of the Reagans’ lives.

“I’ll never forget having lemonade on the porch with the Reagans,” she said. “I remember how beautiful the ranch was and that it was obviously a wonderful retreat for them.

“I remember thinking how private it was and how I felt like we had stepped into a personal part of their lives,” said Alice Perry, who is now Chief of Staff to Mississippi First Lady Marcia Barbour and Deputy Chief of Staff to Gov. Barbour.

The Neshoba County group was impressed with Reagan’s youthfulness at 69 and how he insisted on helping unload the carriage.

Pete Perry asked Reagan if he wanted to wait for a photo opportunity with the press, but Reagan refused, quickly calling one of his ranch hands and helping Perry and Sid Salter, one of the other Neshoba countians who made the road trip, unload the cargo.

“He jumps up in the truck and picks up his end before we knew what was going on,” Perry said.

And it occurred to Perry at that moment that the man unloading the carriage could be the next President of the United States.

Salter, now perspective editor of The Clarion-Ledger, remembers the day and said he was amazed at how athletic Reagan was.

“I was 20 and in the best shape of my life and I was struggling to hold my corner up, but the 70-year-old Reagan more than pulled his weight and smiled while doing it,” he said.

Salter described Reagan as “very gracious and open. I remember that he had the hands of a working man, not the hands of a politician,” he said.

The Reagans were full of questions about the Fair during the “down-home” and “neighborly” visit at the secluded ranch.

The future President had come to the gate personally to let them in their ranch home known as Rancho del Cielo (Ranch in the sky).

Salter was struck by the relative simplicity of the Reagan’s ranch and “the accessibility we were granted.”

The ranch is now made up of a main house, a guest house, the ranch manager’s home and a Secret Service command post. It also has two barns, one that serves mostly as a garage and another hay barn with holds a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Margaret Hardy, who along with her husband Jerome made the trip, remembered the day as a comfortable one in a beautiful setting, but without the glitz and glamour usually associated with a former movie star or famous politician.

“It was a beautiful spot in the mountains, but the ranch wasn’t fancy or elaborate,” Hardy said. “It was very comfortable and not really that big.

Nancy Reagan wore jeans and a shirt and “he had on jeans too,” she said “It was just very relaxed like you would be if you were at a neighbor’s house.”

The Reagans read a copy of The Neshoba Democrat their visitors brought that detailed their historic Fair visit.

On Sunday, Aug. 3, 1980, Reagan had given a speech at the Neshoba County Fair.

Upon presentation of the carriage at the Fair, Reagan said to the crowd of over 30,000, “I just want to say one thing about that surrey over there. I can remember when I rode in one of those for real.”

Some have reported seeing the carriage later in television interviews conducted from Reagan’s ranch where the President was shown regularly

After three or four calls from Nancy Reagan’s secretary, Pete Perry and his group came up with the idea of transporting the carriage from the Fair to California personally.

First they recruited the Hardys who in turn invited Freddie and Forrest Bridges to ride with them in a separate car. Perry said they also asked Allen Payne to come along as a driver.

Rounding out the group were two other Republican supporters and party sponsors who financed the trip, Bill Wilkins of Jackson and Dan Anderson of Brandon. The two flew out to met the group in California.

Perry said they planned the whole excursion on the fly, borrowing a Winnebago from Lee and Diane Howell of Philadelphia and leaving early Thursday morning on Aug. 7, 1980.

At first it was a chance to squeeze a little more press out of Reagan’s visit to the Fair, but quickly it became a mission for the enthusiasts, Pete Perry said.

“We were all young and decided to make a road trip out of it,” Pete Perry said. “We looked at it kind of like an adventure.”

And it was quite an adventure.

The group had problems before they even left Philadelphia when they discovered the carriage had to be broken down into parts to fit in the U-Haul trailer they had rented.

Later, the Howells’ Winnebago got a flat tire crossing the Mississippi River Bridge in Vicksburg. In Texas the vehicle’s air conditioning quit and in New Mexico the transmission gave out forcing them abandon the Winnebago and rent a vehicle for the rest of their journey.

When they got to California the group rented a larger truck and reassembled the carriage with Salter and Perry finally driving it personally to the Reagans’ ranch.

Upon their arrival, Nancy, enthusiastically received the rocking chair, a second one in addition to the one given to them at the Fair.

“She was excited about that,” Perry remembered. “We carried it inside for her and she showed us around a little bit, but when we came back out Reagan wanted to take out the carriage.”

Salter said years later he was invited to a press luncheon post-Moscow Summit press luncheon and briefing in the East Room of the White House. While he noted that the job, assassination attempt and age had taken their toll he was still impressive.

“During my brief time with him at that event, I reminded him of the day at the ranch with the Neshoba group,” Salter said. “He said the Harkins rocker and the surrey were still in use at the ranch.”

In the eight years that followed Reagan’s election, he appointed Perry to three different federal posts — State Director of the Farmer’s Home Administration, Assistant Secretary of Economic Development and Regional Director of Rural Development.

Perry was born and raised in Neshoba County and served as the county’s GOP chairman before Reagan was elected as President.

He now lives in Jackson and does government relations work.