"Dude ranching today is built around its three R's as
inevitably as schooling. Here, they are
Romance, Rest and Recreation;
and the greatest of these is Romance"

-- "A Cowboy Looks at the Dudes" Travel, November, 1941.

From The Saturday Evening Post, 1939.

From Travel, 1938.

The romance of the dude ranch was surely its main attraction and one that became less and less a part of the geographical West and more attached to the mythic West. In the mid-1930's, there were displaced dude ranches not just in the northeast, but in Florida, Hawaii, Jamaica, and even the Philippines. However, outside of New England, the ranches were scattered far and wide; they were not part of a general, geographically isolated trend like that of the northeastern. Granted some of these were just resorts with horses, but they advertised themselves as a dude ranch to cash in on its popularity. Dude ranches were not cheap, and they were not luxurious, but they were and continue to be extremely popular. To answer the question why requires an investigation of the desires of the tourist and the psyche of the American. This section will examine what it is about the institution of the dude ranch that Americans found so appealing from the 1920's until 1950. Certainly the location of the West made the dude ranch enticing to guests, but in order for the dude ranch to be dispersed so successfully, it had to possess certain qualities not related to place. To discern why the dude ranch itself was popular, free from geography, partially explains how it could be moved so easily from its native soil. The dude ranch could only be popular outside of the West if it offered tourists a unique experience, and one that was, in many ways, unrelated to its geography.

The dude ranch hit its stride as America entered the machine age, and the success of the dude ranch was very dependent on the changes rendered by mechanization. In the 20's and 30's, more and more Americans left the countryside for jobs in the offices and factories of the city. The multitudes that were in confining jobs often wanted to spend their earnings on a vacation that would allow them to relax in the open spaces.

These "poor souls" were dramatized in articles like "Dude Wrangler." This piece from The Saturday Evening Post tells the story of "Mr. Smith," the harried businessman from New York City, who comes to "Carter's Ranch" for two weeks. In the beginning, he is an ill-tempered, pasty fellow, plagued by insomnia and indigestion. After a fortnight on the ranch, he is sleeping soundly and awakening early for a hearty breakfast, with a smile on his face and a spring in his step, offering a cheerful "Howdy" to all who pass.

These little tales of cheer were found everywhere in the travel and promotional articles about ranch life. The dude ranch was touted as a tonic for mind, body, and soul. A stay on a dude ranch could "whisk away insomnia," bring back an appetite, and soothe bad nerves. It was a happy, carefree vacation guaranteed to rejuvenate the weary city dweller.

"Certain diseases even slip away in the high dry country. It is good for the bronchial tubes, even for hay fever. And how very, very good is a horse's back for the liver of a man!" (Rinehart, "The Dude Ranch").

Guests sometimes could not narrow their analysis down to a particular organ, but they still felt some unnamed joy on the ranch:

"A summer on a dude ranch does something to you, from which you never quite recover" ("Lady on a Dude Ranch").

Much of the dude ranch's restorative power came from its informal and egalitarian temper. In the first half of this century, the social code of the upper classes was very strict and formalities were observed in every situation. On the dude ranch, such pretenses were brushed away. Dudes, regardless of age, sex, wealth and station, were all treated the same. Almost all of the dudes were of the upper class, so this is not a break down in class barriers, but rather of the formal behavior that they were accustomed to. Their were also no distinctions between the ranch hands and the guests. Meals were served family style, and the help often ate with the guests. Many dudes found this roll reversal reassuring. For once he/she did not have to be the boss and assume responsibility.

"He may be confused at first, for at once he is faced with something he has forgotten ever existed--that is, pure democracy. The cowboy is the equal of the capitalist, the girl who makes his bed is the daughter of a rancher; she is not a servant. The waitress may be a college girl. The owner of the dude ranch is his host, not a hotel keeper" (Rinehart, "Dude West").

"The dude wrangler does not consider himself an underling in any sense whatsoever. He has his full quota of self respect, feels that he meets his dudes on footing of equality, and does his best to show them a good time" (Evarts, 34).

"Instead of being a servant to the guests, he [the wrangler] is their boss" (Watts, 56).

Many women enjoyed the dude ranch because of this democratic attitude. They wore the same outfits and participated in all the same activities as the men. Independent Woman, the magazine of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, ran frequent articles on dude ranches. The dude ranch allowed women to prove themselves as "rough and ready" as the men.

"Women who can sleep in bedsacks among the glaciers and lakes, without benefit of tents or cabins, even when it rains or freezes, cannot be accused of the softness some critics think Americans have developed" (Ray, "Down the Long Pack Trail").

These lady dudes reveled in the chance to prove their worth in this unlikely environment and fiercely defended their right to be horseback with the men. A women writer for the Literary Digest recalled,

"The picture came back to me when I mentioned the title of this article to a dude-ranching friend of mine. He murmured, 'A lady on a dude ranch! When is a lady not a lady? When she's--' But I let him get no farther until he had altered the question to make it more accurate--'When is a lady more than a lady?' Then I allowed him to complete the answer--'When she is on a dude ranch!'" ("A Lady on a Dude Ranch," 48).

The casual attire of the ranch was not only a large part of playing cowboy, it was a very effective way to break down any remaining social formalities. Most of the first-time dudes were not used to such functional, economical outfits, and they certainly were not accustomed to wearing them all day long. These folks were used to changing every time they ate. For those unsure of what to pack in their steamer trunks, dude ranch literature offered more than adequate information:

"Clothes? You don't need anything fancy. A pair of "levi's" as the wranglers call blue denim overall pants, khaki shirt, a sweater, a light raincoat, and a pair of shoes with no laces over the ankles--or at least loose laces. If you want to be a real mail-order cowboy take along a five-gallon sombrero with wide brim. It's good protection against the sun and rain, or it shields your face if you're pushing through brush" (Taylor, 34).

"We encourage our dudes to dress up, even carry a full stock of wild clothes at our ranch store. It helps the Senator and Misses Senator and all the Senator kids to forget their dignity. They begin to use first names by the time they buy spurs" ("Rope Your Own," 13).

The attire of the dudes and the secluded setting of the ranch also encouraged guests not only to forget their dignity but to take on another persona.

"The dude is introduced by his first name. Unless he proffers additional information he remains throughout his stay just plain Pete or Bill or Jack. Or, better still, Hi-Pockets, Slim, Doctor or Butch. Talking "shop" or politics is strictly taboo, and the radio is offering dance music rather than news commentators.

Slim may be a promising artist or rising young lawyer back in the city, but, at the Saturday night barn dance...he turns out to be a whiz on the accordion. Doctor lays aside his professional dignity and comes through as a first-rate caller of the square dance and the Virginia reel. 'Hedy Lamarr,' who takes dictation fifty weeks a year in a Manhattan skyscraper office, reigns as the glamour girl of the evening" (Markland, "The East Goes West").

"Masquerade parties in the big clubhouse are extremely democratic. A New York millionaire with gray hair and a vanishing waistline wears a rakish squaw costume and dances hilariously with a slim cabin girl dressed as a Mexican charro. Bankers, lawyers, merchants, artists, writers, school teachers, debutantes, dowagers, in other outlandish costumes, and young cowhands in their own picturesque garb, all mingle with carefree friendliness" (Henderson).

This ability to remake one's identity in the virgin land of the West (or an imitation there of) is a distinctly American myth. From Lewis and Clark to the mountain men, the pony express riders to the settlers and the gold miners, people came West to remake their fortunes. Though considerably watered down and short-lived, this opportunity lived on at the dude ranch and added to its mystique.

The American spirit lived on at the dude ranch in many other ways. The activities of the ranch relied on a nodding familiarity with the ways of the mythic old West. Riding horses, packing out into the wilderness, eating hearty meals, and chatting in front of a roaring fire to pass the time were the primary pleasures of the dude. These were seen as distinctly American at a time when nationalism was lighting a fire in every red-blooded heart in the U.S., and when the machine age threatened to transform humans into a group of cogs in a machine. The American way of life was changing rapidly. Thomas Jefferson's vision of a nation of yeoman farmers was gone forever, and the machine, the skyscraper, and the factory were here to stay. In the face of these changes, Americans were interested in reclaiming a useable past. The dude ranch appealed to the mythic American need to live with and be reborn in the land, at least for a week or two.

"This is a kind of return to the young days of the nation, a sort of finding of roots, and affirmation of faith in the things that made this country, a going back to the elemental simplicities of the pioneer" (Adams).

"Tourists like a dude ranch for many of the same reasons that they like western stories and films, rodeos, and other Wild West shows. It is a fundamentally American institution and resembles nothing else" (Henderson).

"So different is it from any other type of resort, so full of interest to the lover of sports and the real out of doors, so appealing to our native instinct, that it has grown with amazing rapidity" (Watts, 55).

Dean MacCannell argues that the modern consciousness of America was born sometime after the turn of the century and created different needs for the twentieth century tourist. He sees this return to tradition as a specifically modernist reaction.

"Restored remnants of dead traditions are essential components of the modern community and consciousness. They are reminders of our break with the past and with tradition, even our own tradition" (83).

MacCannell is writing in the 1970's, and we must keep in mind that in 1935, the "modern consciousness" was in its infantile stages. MacCannell's statement rings true in that people were making a concentrated effort to capture their American past, but it would be more precise to say that the display of traditions of the West provided people with something to cling to, rather than celebrate a break from. In either case, the modern tourist wants to see his past on display to have something to point to that says, that is where I am from, that is who I am, that is America. The dude ranch, as well as Colonial Williamsburg, and Henry Ford's Greenfield Village provided for this need. (More discussion of these displays can be found in Heading East).

The dude ranch was not only a place to feel the spirit of the pioneers, it was considered the protector of the frontier, the preserver of the western way of life. In a very practical way, the dude ranches did work to protect their riding lands by fighting for protective legislation, and simply making people aware that these wild areas existed. Once people saw these untamed wilds from the back of a horse, they were more likely to take an active roll in preserving them. What the dude ranch preserved best however, was the feel of the West.

"Dude ranching is perpetuating the frontier spirit of hospitality and good comradeship that characterized the Old West" ("Get Down and Come on In").

"At one point, things looked pretty black for the multitudinous lovers of adventure, for those days [of the Old West] seemed to pass quickly from the national scene. Then right at the crisis the West gave the country the dude ranch; the romance and the thrills of the frontier were safe for posterity" (Byam, 38).

This change in attitude was important to the continued acceptance and eventual mobility of the dude ranch. Because people began to see the dude ranch as the "keeper of the West" rather than the West itself, it could move free of its western locale. People no longer expected the real thing, they expected the museum replication, more real and more durable than the "Old West" itself.

The dude ranch format provided a place for tourists to meet many of their expectations within comfortable limits. The ranch atmosphere provided a combination of adventure and safety. John Jakle cites the following as some of the major reasons for travel: 1) call to adventure, 2) youthful fantasy, 3) experience of place, 4) education, 5) sociability, shared experience, 6) social status, having tales to tell. The dude ranch offers all of these and, more importantly, within the boundaries of comfort and convenience. Dudes get the adventure of riding in the mountains and the fulfillment of the youthful cowboy fantasy without the danger of untreated water, Indian attack, or an unruly horse. More importantly, the guests fulfill these expectations without fear of ridicule from the locals. The dude ranch is the safe haven for those that want to safely indulge their fantasies.

The experience of place on a dude ranch became more and more complex as the dude ranch evolved from a cattle operation taking in boarders, to a tourist operation with cattle for decoration. Many tourists wanted to see the "real West." This motive is not unique to those traveling in the West. MacCannell asserts that "All tourists desire this deeper involvement with the society and culture to some degree: it is a basic motivation for travel" (10). Jakle also emphasizes the tourist's desire to get to the "back" of a place, beyond the "front" displayed for the tourist. At the turn of the century, getting to the back of the West required little effort. According to Stephen Douglas in 1909, "In Western America the tourist can leave the beaten trail wherever he feels like it."

Twenty-five years later this was not true. Tourists had to search for the not so beaten path, and the dude ranch was the easy way to find it. At the early dude ranches, the back and front were one. The cowboys worked the cows and helped out the guests and the guests did as they pleased. Granted, the dudes were not an integral part of the ranch operations, but the ranch activities centered around bovine, not human concerns. As the ranches began to cater only to dudes, becoming less ranches and more tourist destinations, the front/back dichotomy began to appear more sharply. For instance it was okay for the dudes to see the wranglers hauling manure, hanging out in the kitchen or shooting the breeze on the steps of the bunkhouse. Indeed this back side was a large part of the attraction of the dude ranch. However, it was not okay for the dudes to see the "other back side" of the ranch: the wrangler in tweeds, oxford, and a tie going to visit his college sweetheart on Sunday or boning up on his chemistry to prepare for next semester. Because more owners and staff were coming from the East, and the dude ranch was being torn from its roots, it was important to hide these "inauthentices," and they became the real backside of the dude ranch.

The dudes' sense of place was also mitigated by the dude ranch itself. The whole ranch was there to serve the dude and in doing so, became isolated from its locality. The dude ranch became a sort of island unto itself reenacting what a ranch should be doing with no contact with the community. However, the staff usually did an adequate job of recreating what the guests were looking for by using regional slang, adopting the locals' attitude, and their attire. The staff may have been from all over, but a couple of weeks hanging out at the local bar, exploring the countryside, and shopping in the town shops taught them enough. For most guests this was not only good enough -- it was exactly what they came for.

While some of the dude ranches did not give dudes a true sense of life in the West, the isolated community of the dude ranch created a shared experience that kept guests coming back year after year. The guests were together for a week or more and they spent many hours in the saddle where there was nothing to do but gaze and talk. The "hardships" and adventure of the ranch also created bonds of camaraderie. Dudes spent hours discussing their soreness, the river crossing, the wildlife they saw, the weather, and their plans for the next day. Even though they were only on a first name basis, and they rarely discussed their professions, they would easily confess their emotional or family troubles on the trail. This strange combination of intimacy and anonymity provided a safe forum for confession. The dudes' commitment to their particular ranch was also part of the bond. Everyone was part of the ranch family and the ranch proprietors usually went out of their way to make guests feel included. They were invited to participate in staff shows, help the wranglers, and share a beer. This sense of belonging and community the dude ranch created was a major reason for repeat guests. Everyone wants to go where you are greeted warmly and everybody knows your name, even if it is only your first name.

Despite its evolution from real to representative from the 1920's to the 1940's, the dude ranch was still extremely popular and has remained so up to the present. This is largely due to the ability modern conscious to accept representation and replication. According to MacCannell, it is the reproduction that makes the original legitimate, reversing the theory of Walter Benjamin.

"Benjamin believed that the reproductions of the work of art are produced because the work has a socially based 'aura' about it, the 'aura' being a residue of its origins in a primordial ritual. He should have reversed his terms. The work becomes 'authentic' only after the first copy of it is produced. The reproductions are the aura, and the ritual, far from being a point of origin, derives from the relationship between the original object and its socially constructed importance. I would argue that this is the structure of the attraction in modern society, including the artistic attractions, and the reason the Grand Canyon has a tourist 'aura' about it even though it did not originate in ritual." (48).

The dude ranch is a reproduction, just like the western films, books, and wild west shows. People are not interested in the cowboy lifestyle because of what it was, but because of its "aura" the mythic status it has attained. These reproductions have sanctified the cowboy and the ranch life into something more than it ever was. The dude ranch retains the aura and that is what people came for.

The dude ranch moved beyond simple representation, however. It evolved into a thing of its own. People in the 1930's were not disappointed that the cowboys were not "real" what was real was the atmosphere--the atmosphere of a guest ranch. What the dude ranch had to offer was not the real West, and that was not what people came to expect. They expected all of the characteristics outlined above--relaxation, informality, a chance to leave responsibility at the door, and to be someone else for a couple of days. They wanted to see the big spaces the way that the old cowpunchers did, on horseback, and to imagine and recapture what that was like. All of this in the safety of the resort. The resort, as long as it provided the right atmosphere, did not need to be even in the West. What the dude ranch had to sell, and still sells, is "Romance, Rest, and Recreation" and the greatest of these is still Romance. By 1940, the dude ranch was no longer a real ranch, instead, it became a "real dude ranch"--a portable representation for what the West still was in some places, somewhere beyond the road.











From Dude Ranches in the Big Horn Mountains, 192?








From Travel, 1938.










Advertisement from Life, 1949, illustrates the popularity of the dude ranch. By the looks of the hacienda in the background and the outfits of the people pictured, these are obviously dudes, and not working ranch hands.









From The Saturday Evening Post, 1939.














From Independent Woman, 1941.















"Miss Dude" from
Ranch Life in the Buffalo Bill Country
, 192?


From The Saturday Evening Post, 1939.