The History of Dude Ranches
The Origins of Bitterroot Ranch
Over the last hundred years dude ranches have done much to preserve and foster the spirit of self-reliance, personal freedom, love of wild nature and commitment to family which have been so important in making America the great place it is today. At its best, a dude ranch is the antithesis of watching TV or playing computer games. At a dude ranch, riding a horse through wild country, people are experiencing the real rather than the virtual; they are active participants in charge of their own fates rather than passive watchers having vicarious thrills. The feeling of satisfaction, accomplishment and relaxation after a day on a good horse breathing fresh air in unspoiled country is a great tonic to body and soul.
Dude ranches got their start in the West in the 1880s not long after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Many wealthy foreigners made hunting trips and sight seeing excursions to the American West which was home to abundant wild game and provided magnificent unspoiled scenery. A famous early dude was Theodore Roosevelt. After World War I the popularity of dude ranches increased enormously and during the 20s and 30s they were the main tourist attraction in the Rocky Mountain area. Writers like Owen Wister, Zane Grey and Mary O’Hara and painters like Remington and Russell brought the fabulous romance of cowboy life on an open frontier to millions throughout the world. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was an unprecedented success in Europe and the East. At the same time the industrial revolution was transforming the East Coast, polluting and scarring the countryside and destroying wildlife. It is no wonder that the mystic of the West attracted many talented and sometimes eccentric people who felt hemmed in at home by social constraints and dense populations. Galloping horses, wild Indians, hard riding cowboys, magnificent scenery and, above all, the intoxicating freedom of the frontier captured the imagination of the Western World. In the West a man was judged for his courage, ability and performance; not for his family background.
Perhaps no other era in recent times has provided such picturesque color unless it is the East Africa of Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa), Beryl Markham (West with the Night) and Earnest Hemingway during much the same period. Two people who saw both cultures and wrote about them were Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt though Roosevelt especially concentrated heavily on the hunting aspects of his long trip to Kenya.
Given the romantic attraction of the West and the dwindling wild places in the East, it was logical that affluent and imaginative Easterners and Europeans should head west for their vacations and the railways were delighted to help. Some Western ranchers began to take paying guests who would share their homes and their lives; ride horseback, herd cattle, hunt and fish. They came with their steamer trunks and often spent the whole summer. In these early years little accommodation was available except in the homes of ranchers who began to supplement their income by taking in paying guests or “dudes” as they came to be known. At the time dude does not seem to have had the unpleasant connotations which it has acquired today and simply meant someone paying for services at a Western ranch. The modern dude ranch industry has doubtless suffered serious loss of business in late years because of this unfortunate label which it seems unable to shed.
For the most part, the great old dude ranches like Larry Larom’s Valley Ranch were set up by men who had been educated in the East and had grown to love the West as a result of vacations. A notable exception was Charlie Moore of the CM Ranch who grew up in the West. The educated Easterners who moved to the West helped introduce it to thousands of people. They understood what a dude wanted much better than the average rancher whose world was too different from that of the Eastern elite. They also had an important affect on state politics as many were active in state legislatures. These Easterners turned dude ranchers helped bridge a cultural gap between East and West not only by their own activities, but also because of the impact of the guests they brought. Westerners who had struggled against the elements and fought off the wolves from their stock were not as inclined to value the sanctity of the seemingly unlimited wilderness as those from the East who had seen their environment trashed.
The main activities were horseback riding, fly fishing, wilderness pack trips, hunting and helping with ranch activities. In those days and sometimes still today many of these dudes were excellent riders and crack shots. The concept that every dude was a hopeless greenhorn and knew nothing of riding is a mistake some Westerners were inclined to make and as time went by this attitude became stronger since fewer and fewer dudes had riding and shooting skills. Some of the wise old ranchers like Spike van Cleve and Struthers Burt realized that occasionally Easterners could teach the West some things about horsemanship, but as time went by too many ranches began to cater mainly to people who had little experience in riding. In order to avoid accidents they had to seek out quiet horses which could not give a good rider an interesting ride. This meant that the Eastern riding establishment began to look with contempt on dude ranch horseback riding vacations. This may be a valid assessment for most ranches, but there are still a number of very noteworthy exceptions today.
The great days for dude ranches were the roaring ‘20s. The National Dude Ranchers’ Association was set up in 1926 to address common political and marketing problems. The industry was hit hard by the depression days of the ‘30s and just beginning to come back when the war came. In the years following the war they began rapidly to lose their relative importance for the tourist industry in States like Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. People began to travel in motor homes, stay in motels, drive through Yellowstone Park and visit resorts instead of taking a classical dude ranch vacation. Instead of having first hand contact with the life of the West most tourists became passive sight seers who bought gas and groceries, ate in restaurants and had little comprehension of how people lived in the country they passed through. Dude ranches increased somewhat in size and numbers also, but not nearly as much as other aspects of the tourist trade and most dude ranches had to change with the times to survive. Many began to resemble resorts, with their heated swimming pools, tennis courts and saunas, more than the old style of dude ranch. Others began to emphasize hay rides, square dances, barbecues and sing alongs rather than traditional activities like horseback riding, fly fishing and pack trips.
I believe that the classical dude ranch in its purest form had many or all of the following characteristics: 1. They were working ranches as well as dude ranches and were at least partly self-sufficient in meat, vegetables and dairy products. 2. They owned their own horses and raised and trained some of them on the ranch. 3. They provided wilderness pack trips. 4. The owners lived all year on the ranch and did not flee to more temperate climates when winter came. 5. The owners were basically sharing their homes and their way of life with their guests. It seems to me that Larry Larom’s Valley Ranch came as close as any to meeting these criteria.
Today there are several hundred places in the West which call themselves dude ranches, but the majority of these have little in common with the classical dude ranch criteria above. As time passed most of the great old dude ranch families from the pre World War II era failed to maintain the old traditions. Some of the old ranchers had no children, others had children who were not interested in continuing and still others decided to sell out to wealthy families who usually looked on the ranches they bought as holiday toys and investments rather than a serious business to which they wanted to dedicate their lives. Thus today many ranches are run by hired managers rather than the owners themselves. The breed of rancher for whom the land is a sacred trust and of which he is proud to be a steward for his lifetime to be kept in top shape for coming generations is much rarer today. Most ranch owners now look on the land mainly as an investment to be bought and sold as the winds may blow. The concept that the land be treated with nearly the same reverence as a wife or a husband is dieing fast and understood by few in a transient society where the family farm has nearly disappeared.
Naturally enough most dude ranch owners have sought to provide whatever the vacation market wanted within the limits of their personal talents and inclinations. There is a great deal of overlapping and a wide divergence in each category, but one can classify them loosely into a few main headings such as resort ranches, luxury ranches, working ranches, dude and guest ranches, fly fishing ranches and hunting ranches. I hope that the classical type of dude and working ranch can survive and remain true to most of the old traditions which personify much of what is most admirable in American culture.
Suggested reading for a more in depth study into the fascinating history of dude ranching:
Lawrence R. Bourne, Dude Ranching - A Complete History.
Spike Van Cleve, Forty Years' Gatherins.
Struthers Burt, Diary of a Dude Wrangler.
Photo credit: Wyoming Tales and Trails