Beef was the valley’s most important export, and dudes were the most important import. The first dude ranches established in the valley were the JY (1908) by Louis Joy and Struthers Burt, the Bar BC (1912) and the White Grass (1913) by Harold Hammond and George Bispham. While the JY was the oldest and largest, the Bar BC quickly became the most well-known and profitable. The Bar BC is also responsible for establishing the dude ranch as a business in Jackson Hole. It directly lead to the creation of 12 other dude ranches, all tracing their origin to staying at the Bar BC. There were several others who stayed at the Bar BC and established private residences in the area. Maud Noble was one of these individuals.
Struthers Burt is quoted as saying the period of 1919-1929 was the “golden age of dude ranching.” Dude ranches reached their height during this time, with the most amount of visitors, activities offered and profit made off of wealthy easterners looking to live like a cowboy. In the summer of 1925, during the height of the “golden age,” there were 400 residents in the town of Jackson and over 600 dudes in the valley.
Unlike their operational ranch counterparts, most dude ranches sprung up on the west side of the Snake River, where access to water was not a concern. Some would raise 5-10 cattle in order to call themselves a “cattle ranch” in order to better advertise the rustic authenticity of their location. The west side of the Snake also provided better access to the mountains, lakes and streams that were considered to be the most scenic areas in the valley.
Stunning views, abundant wildlife and stories of Indians, trappers and the wild frontier captured the imaginations of the wealthy living in crowded post-industrial eastern cities. Romanticized ideas about cowboys fighting Indians and living off the land while following vast herds of cattle on the open plains were forefront in their thoughts. The advertising for dude ranches did nothing to dispel this myths, and as is the case for Jackson Hole, created the idea of “the last of the old west.” Wealthy individuals would travel via railroad to Victor, Driggs and St. Anthony, Idaho and be carried over the passes in wagons. Upon arrival at their dude ranch they would receive room, board and a horse for a single fee, charged monthly. This became known as the American Plan and was standard for all dude ranches.
There was a large campaign set up by the railroad companies, specifically the Union Pacific, to entice travelers to experience the western lifestyle. Tourists would find the ranch of their choice in a guidebook that the UP published, and travel via railroad to experience the disappearing lifestyle of the “Old West Cowboy.” The minimum reservation accepted at most dude ranches was two weeks. Some even stayed up to a month or more. Tourists were encouraged to leave the family car at home, and leave the hassle of cross-country travel to the railroads. This benefitted the dude ranches as well, because it meant their visitors would stay much longer due to the time spent traveling. For about a decade the dude ranches and railroads shared a profitable partnership as World War I ended and the idea of a vacation became welcome.
Unlike the wranglers and ranch hands who took care of ranch management and chores, the dudes were simply glorified tourists “playing cowboy.” The term dude began in a derogatory sense, but later was claimed proudly and encouraged by guests and ranch owners alike. They would have the option of going on week-long hunting, fishing or pack trips to see what the life of the cowboy was like. Activities around the ranch included swimming, fishing and camping. In the early years hiking and mountaineering were not yet recreational activities, but they were soon added to the list.
World War I
Even before the United States was involved in World War I, international travel was dangerous. Americans still wanted to go on vacations and began to look within the borders of their own country. They then discovered the west and the dude ranch. The combination of the war ending and beef prices dropping meant that there were many new ranches opening their doors to dudes. Some were small, capable of hosting up to 10 dudes and others like the JY and Bar BC could host upwards of 60-65 dudes. There was a wide variety of locations, activities and amenities offered for any vacation budget.
“Roughing it in comfort”
Many dude ranches advertised the comforts they provided and drew a strong line between “comfort” and “luxury.” A comfort was considered a furnished log cabin with beds, a private outhouse and hot water supplied in a tub every morning. Luxuries were plumbing and electricity. Other comforts were fresh vegetables and dairy. Due to the harsh climate and small growing season, being able to provide your guests with fresh food was no small feat. Men like John Moulton saw a profitable venture in supplying the area dude ranches with these items. Moulton managed a dairy operation in order to sell his butter and cream to dude ranches. The earliest meals at the Bar BC were entirely canned, and mostly meat-based. Being able to add a vegetable garden was a considerable advantage over the competition. Some dude ranches began offering automobile tours of Yellowstone for an extra fee.
There was one big difference between dude ranches and other “guest” ranches in the valley. While the dude ranches competed between themselves for business, they banded together in opposition to the other more commercial developments popping up in the valley. The “guest ranch” was becoming a popular venture for individuals who were not interested in “roughing it” in any form. These were walk-in, nightly guests who stayed in small clusters of “cottage cabins” designed for automobile tourists. These auto camps would bill themselves as “rustic ranches” but retain none of the authenticity or integrity of a true ranch. As far as the owners of the dude ranches were concerned, these camps would ruin the valley.
True dude ranches refused walk-in guests and had strict policies for making reservations. The minimum stay was around two weeks, but most stayed for a month or more. The only way to obtain a reservation was to send in references. The policy differed from ranch to ranch, some required references from past dudes and others wanted written descriptions of character and interest. More often than not, if an individual did not know previous dudes or wasn’t from the same city-suburb area, the request would be refused.
The strict policies were in place to ensure a suitable “ranch family” atmosphere could be created. Families would come to the dude ranches for weeks and live in close quarters, often sharing day and week-long activities. The owners of the ranches wanted to be sure of the “amenable character” of their guests in order to have a smooth summer. Those who were invited to come and then proved themselves to be less than amicable were asked to leave.
Black Tuesday in October of 1929 would effectively bring the golden age of dude ranching to an end. The stock market crash bankrupted many ranches. They were unable to pay large debts or property taxes. The overhead costs of running a dude ranch proved to be too much for many during this period. Some hung on and made small changes such as raising prices and hosting less guests. Others closed the ranches for a few summers in hopes of returning, and many did. A third option was to sell the property and hope to receive a decent amount for it with the plunging land values. One such entity that was less affected by the Depression than most was the Snake River Land Company, secretly backed by John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller took advantage of the financially struggling homesteaders and ranchers alike during this period and many were willing to sell for any price. Many who did sell to the SRLC continued to operate their ranches on leases, relieved of the pressure of property taxes. Some ranches were able to open during this period as well.
Most dude ranches rode out the Depression, but many more disappeared. After the end of World War II, the dude ranch began to experience a decline like it had never seen before. Automobiles were changing the landscape of America and thus the idea of vacations. Americans were no longer interested in traveling by train for days to arrive in a single location and remain there for several weeks. They wanted to travel in their family vehicle, seeing as many sights as possible along the way. The railroads continued to advertise the benefits of easy travel and dude ranch destinations, but they too would not recover.
Americans no longer had any interest in “roughing it” and as a result many dude ranches installed electricity and made plumbed bathroom additions to their sleeping cabins. The idea of a vacation centered on vigorous exercise was waning, changing the way dude ranches were run. Bars, pool halls and casinos were added to ranches. A much larger indoor presence was being focused on. Game rooms were installed in empty hay lofts, no longer servicing the saddle horses that were missing from their stables below. Pack trips shrunk to an hour or so, with a larger emphasis on motorized sight-seeing. With the expansion of Grand Teton National Park, many dude ranches sold their land to the NPS. Some remained with a lease or a life estate agreement. Others sold and moved away from the area. The White Grass and the Bar BC would hold out until 1985 and 1986 respectively.
Text by Samantha Ford, Director of Historical Research and Outreach