Dude Ranches Preserve Old Culture of the West

Olaf C. Seltzer
"A Dude's Welcome"
1909

Of “Living Museums”…

Dude ranch vacations in the Rocky Mountains are an old tradition dating back almost to the first days of settlement. President Theodore Roosevelt himself was an early dude and stayed at Cyrus Eaton’s ranch, which was the first to take paying guests. Roosevelt felt that the dude ranch personified much of the best of American culture by fostering independence, self-reliance, physical fitness and active sports.

The glory days for dude ranches were the 1920s when people taking vacations in the West came by rail to stay on working ranches for weeks and even months. They went riding, fishing and hunting, and they often shared the lives and chores of the owners, rounding up the cattle and fixing the fences. Guests could escape for a time the intense pressures and social constraints of urban life to lead a more natural existence.

The Upper Wind River Country, where Dubois (population about 900) is the only town, became a top destination for dude ranch vacations early in the 1900s. Today the town is probably the most isolated in the lower 48 states, as there is no other town within seventy-five miles. It used to be called Never Sweat, but when the local residents tried to register that name with the postal department in Cheyenne they were arbitrarily assigned the name of Dubois after a senator. Did they call it Never Sweat because no one ever worked very hard or, as I would prefer to think, because of the cool, dry climate? Either way, I imagine that the name change has cost the town millions in lost tourist dollars.

Charlie Moore started one of the great old dude ranches there a century ago at his CM Ranch on the Jakey’s Fork. Other ranches were established during the roaring ’20s and many rich Easterners came for the summer to ride, fish and have wild parties. There were some fine rodeos with top riders from all over the country. Gambling was legal here in those days and added considerably to the excitement of the times. Movie stars like Clark Gable, Carol Lombard and Tom Mix visited. This was the Prohibition Era and it is said that several stills operated in hidden places. Enterprising bootleggers found the juniper berries growing abundantly on mountain cedars to be a good raw material for gin and apparently had a brisk trade.

Tourists simply passing through on the highway can see some stunning views, tour the fascinating museums, see the wildlife displays and make purchases at the local shops. If they want to have more than a superficial visit and get under the skin of the country, they should spend a week at one of the dude ranches which still thrive in Wind River Country. They have had to adapt, like everything else, to changing times and some have become more resorts than places to ride horses, work cattle and lead the life of the Old West. Nevertheless most of these ranches still offer guests a window into the life and history of the country beyond views of the mountains from the road and overnights in motels. Guests learn the satisfaction that comes from a long day in the saddle riding through wild, unspoiled country. Some have the chance to help their hosts move cattle on horseback and feel a sense of accomplishment after a job well done. Ranches still handle their cattle in much the same way people here did 150 years ago and for thousands of years in other mountainous parts of the world. Vehicles can’t go into most of the places where cattle graze in the summer and horseback is the only practical solution. Guests soon catch onto the fact that a good horse loves to work cattle and take pleasure in teamwork with a responsive animal.

Dude ranches have preserved some of the folklore and culture of the Old West with cowboy songs around the campfire, rustic log cabins, big open fireplaces, rustic furniture and Western paintings on the walls. After an authentic dude ranch vacation, books and movies about the West take on a new meaning. A valuable aspect of a ranch vacation can be the relationship it provides with the owners in a relaxed, unhurried way while out on the trail, at mealtimes or perhaps conversations during the cocktail hour. It is like being a guest of the family. The ranchers know the history, the flora and the fauna. They can explain how a little bird like the water oozle dives for grubs on the bottom of a stream competing with the trout or what grizzly bears eat. They can tell you how the Indians used to dig up the roots of the bitterroot flowers as an important source of food and what kind of wood makes the most durable post. Maybe they will also tell you what kind of fly is likely to work best at a particular time of year and how to present it to the fish. Through the eyes of ranchers, guests often come to better understand and share their love of nature and wilderness. It is a two-way street as ranchers learn about the outside world from guests of very diverse backgrounds. This is the kind of interchange which helps dispel the destructive polarization of our society.

Dude ranches can also offer fine horseback riding vacations in the equestrian sense with some excellent horses which know how to negotiate difficult mountainous terrain. The horses on the best ranches are mostly raised there and learn to canter over broken terrain from the day they are born. These horses are not kept in stalls, but run free in large pastures for most of their lives. They have a zest for rides through uninhabited country where they can go all day without nearby highways and usually without seeing other people. These horses love a brisk canter on forest trails or sagebrush flats. They are as interested as the riders in the sights one sees and in the new views which open up so often. One can often see mountain peaks a hundred miles away and the vastness and unspoiled nature of the area gives one a sense of freedom and unrestricted space far from city crowds. Authentic dude ranches are a living museum of the vital, pioneering spirit of the old West and help keep alive some of our finest traditions.

By Bayard Fox

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