STS Ranch 1922-1940
In 1914 Frances Mears came to Jackson Hole, yet another member of a wealthy Philadelphian family looking for a western adventure. Frances would certainly find hers at the Bar BC, where she stayed for four summers. Over those summers she met and fell in love with Buster Estes, a ranch employee working as a wrangler. Theirs was a classic western love story often portrayed in Hollywood; the wealthy eastern lady falling for the western cowboy. They married in 1918 much to the dismay and disapproval of her family, from whom she would be estranged for several years. Buster was never accepted by Frances’ family. By 1922, the Estes heard of a small 76 acre property located just south of Moose that would be available for a homestead. Frances and Buster immediately filed the necessary paperwork and by December of 1922 their cabin was finished and they moved in January of 1923. As they had both come from the very successful Bar BC, their intention was to open a dude ranch of their own. They would become one of about 12+ ranches in the valley opening as a direct result of staying or working at the Bar BC. In order to receive a patent for their homestead, they cleared and cultivated eight acres of land, but never successfully harvested any crops.
The couple had little money and built a very small, modest cabin for themselves. In the spring their only cow gave birth to a calf, who was traded for a roof and fireplace for the cabin. In the early years it was slow going, with only one extra cabin and one tent to house overnight guests. They were able to serve meals and limited grocery supplies to tourists traveling through the Moose area. By 1924, however, they were offering dairy products, eggs, and baked goods, as well as chicken dinners and ice cream. In 1927 Buster filed the final papers to receive the patent to the land, which now included a five-room main cabin, a log guest cabin and two wooden frame guest cabins. A garage and barn had also been built on the property, as well as a large garden for vegetables. They were able to house a modest ten dudes, and offered activities such as fishing, camping, hunting, hiking and riding. Their rates were low despite the amenities of fresh food and hot baths provided each morning in tubs, only $55.00 per week included food, lodging and saddle horses. Eventually, they were able to expand their outfit to accommodate around 20 dudes and the STS was considered one of the more popular dude ranches in the valley.
Just three years later in 1930, the STS had expanded to include ten cabins and two bunkhouses for dudes. A laundry and bath facility had also been added to the property but the guest cabins were still without electricity and plumbing. Guests could pay an extra fee to use the plumbed bathroom in the main cabin if they did not want to use the private outhouses located behind each cabin. In the same year, disaster struck the ranch in the form of the stock market crash and following economic depression. The larger dude ranches could afford to keep their operations running, with higher fees and less dudes. The Estes were badly affected by the depression with their small ranch and high overhead costs. They were forced to cut their fees in half, charging only $20.00 per week and charging for extras like saddle horses, which was a highly unusual move. By 1935 their situation was dire and they leased out a small lot of land for the construction of a residence to Stella Woodbury. The lot was vacant until 1942, when the Woodbury home was constructed by the Nelson brothers, a local ranching family. Unfortunately, this small venture was not enough to sustain the ranch.
When World War II broke out the Estes decided their services would be better used supporting the war effort. They closed the ranch and moved to Salt Lake City. The war effort had caused many Americans to be thrifty, with much of the country’s money and energy being focused overseas. The automobile was now becoming affordable, and roads more reliable. It was possible to spend less money and see twice as many things, all from the convenience of your personal vehicle. This was exactly the type of movement the railroads, such as the Union Pacific, had been trying to prevent for the last decade. Now Americans were less interested in spending a lot of money to stay in one location, they wanted to see as much as possible for as little as possible. Dude ranches became less popular as vacation destinations. Small ranches like the STS were finding it harder to make ends meet, with shortages of supplies and employees. Costs ran high, and with the creation of the Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943 and the eventual expansion of Grand Teton National Park in 1950, many felt it was easier to sell their ranches to the National Park Service. Most sold with either a lease to continue operations or a life estate to keep the property for their family.
The Murie Ranch 1945-2003
In 1945 Olaus and Mardy Murie were looking to get out of the town of Jackson where they had been living for the last two decades. Being close friends with the Estes, it was an easy deal to purchase the STS Ranch. The only two considerations were that the Muries would never use the property as a dude ranch, and that the Estes would keep their personal cabin. Stella Woodbury also kept her home until 1947, when she sold it to the Muries. Olaus and Mardy moved into the Woodbury home, and today it is known as the Murie residence. In 1948 the Muries became the sole owners of the entire STS Ranch; Buster and Frances Estes had moved to Arizona full-time and knew they would not be returning.
The Muries spent the next decade happily living on their new ranch, having found the lifetime home they had been seeking in Jackson Hole. In 1954 the ranch was electrified for the first time, and a basement was excavated below the main residence to install an oil furnace. The Muries happily shared the ranch with Olaus’ brother Adolph, and his wife Louise. One of the first changes that Olaus made was to remove all of the fencing and stone walkways that the Estes had installed for the dudes. Olaus wanted to invite all visitors in the valley, not just the humans. He took note of the natural trails the wildlife created and used those, never creating a formal trail system on the property. The only man-made manipulation of natural areas was a dam on the Snake River for a small swimming hole. A pair of beavers living nearby were kind enough to finish it off for the Muries.
By the time the Muries purchased the STS Ranch, both Olaus and his brother Adolph were nationally known for their work as wildlife biologists. They emphasized the importance of an ecosystem as a whole, rather than focusing on a specific species. Instead of viewing one species as the dominant or “best” in an ecosystem, they stressed the important of the relationship of every species in relation to each other. This was a highly controversial view at the time, as policies focused on science and biology operated in direct opposition to the Murie brothers’ research.
The Muries’ dedication and unswerving diligence to changing these policies was revolutionary in the field of conservation. Initially Olaus was called to Jackson Hole to study the dwindling elk herd population. As it had worked in the past, the Biological Survey was commencing an assault on the most likely predators; wolves and coyotes. Their only assumed solution was to remove the predators in an effort to save dwindling populations. Olaus carefully observed the elk and realized the winter forage they were being supplied with contained non-native grasses that were extremely tough and cutting the gums of the elk. This facilitated the spread of disease through the herds, the true cause of the steady decimation. This, in connection with the elk herd having much smaller ranges due to human development, meant that the herd was well beyond the carrying capacity of its Jackson Hole habitat.
Olaus found that the elk herd needed to be smaller, to encourage the disease to stop and create much more healthy animals. He also said that the predator control programs were out of hand, and the poison set out of the coyotes was wreaking havoc on the raptor and falcon populations. The coyotes’ main source of food was not from the elk, but rodents. Sooner or later, the residents of the town and valley would notice a strong increase of these pests in their houses. Olaus’ recommendation was wholly disregarded and the Biological Survey severely censored his work. The overwhelmingly negative reactions to Olaus’ reports only served to reinforce his insistence that the policies creating such disastrous situations needed to change.
The Murie brothers continued to risk their careers in the name of wildlife conservation and management. Neither gave up and both remained vocal about the need for change. Eventually they gained strong allies, who helped to make real changes in this field. The Wilderness Act of 1964 is accredited in large part to the work of the Muries, especially Mardy, who continued to work on her own after Olaus’ death in 1963. The Muries fought for their research and were among the most significant players in the field of conservation as we know it today.
In 1968, Mardy sold the ranch to the Grand Teton National Park in exchange for a life estate lease, where she continued to live until her death in 2003. In 2006, due to the Muries’ considerable contributions to the field of conservation, the Murie Ranch was established as a National Historic Landmark. This is the highest distinction a historic resource can achieve. Today the ranch is known as the Murie Center, which is dedicated to continuing the message of conservation and land stewardship to educate and inspire individuals about the importance of nature and its preservation.
1918: Frances Mears and Buster Estes meet at the Bar BC Dude Ranch and get married.
1922-1930: The STS Dude Ranch has cabins, and sleeping tents that could accommodate 10 guests, laundry and bathroom facilities. Their location being only a mile away from Moose, which had a telephone, post office and store. The STS Ranch also operated in the winter, boasting a sled dog team, snowshoeing and skiing.
1930: The Depression hits the country hard and the first thing to be cut out of the average family budget are vacations. With considerably fewer visitors, small dude ranching operations like the STS begin to struggle.
1935: After several hard years recovering after the Depression, the Estes rent out 200 square feet of land on their ranch for use as a private residence and cabin site. Stella Woodbury would lease the land from them and live in a cabin.
1937: The Nelson brothers construct the cabin, known as the Woodbury House.
1939: The start of World War II and the decline of the dude ranching business. The Estes decided to contribute to the war effort, rather than try to make ends meet in Jackson Hole. They moved to Salt Lake City and essentially leave their ranch behind.
1945: The Muries purchase the STS Ranch. They had previously been living in the town of Jackson (they moved there in 1927) and wanted to be located in a much more natural area. During this time Olaus was chosen as the new director for the Wilderness Society. He set up the main offices of the organization at his ranch in Moose.
1947: Mrs. Woodbury sells her house to the Muries. They move in the following year.
1948: First Wilderness Society meeting held on the Murie Ranch, the old main lodge of the STS Ranch.
1948: The Estes sell their last remaining building to the Muries: their home. By this point they had moved to Arizona full time and didn’t intend to return.
1954: The Murie Ranch is electrified, the basement was excavated in order to house an oil furnace.
1956: Governing council of the Wilderness Society held their first annual meeting.
1963: Olaus Murie dies from cancer, one year before the Wilderness Act passes. Mardy Murie devotes the rest of her life to his work, and lives at the ranch. She continues to host Wilderness Society meetings, important politicians and any individual interested in conserving wilderness and nature.
1968: Mardy Murie sells her ranch to the Grand Teton National Park with a life estate lease. She and other family members continue to live on and visit the ranch.
1974: Adolph Murie dies. His wife Louise stays at the ranch for a short time, but eventually leaves and moves to the town of Jackson.
1990: The Murie home and studio is listed on the National Register.
1997: The Murie Ranch is established as a National Historic District. The Murie Center is established to partner with GTNP to run the Murie Ranch.
2001: Restoration efforts are undertaken on the ranch to help save several of the buildings.
2003: Mardy Murie dies.
2006: The Murie Ranch is established as a National Historic Landmark, the highest distinction a historic resource can achieve. This is one of only two in Grand Teton National Park, the other being Jackson Lake Lodge.
2015: The Murie Center and Teton Science Schools merge.
Text by Samantha Ford, Director of Historical Research and Outreach