At the end of the twentieth century, one hundred years since Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier "closed," the West continues to hold the American imagination. It may come in and out of vogue, but it is ever present. In the same way, the dude ranch lives on too. Today there are hundreds of ranches scattered throughout all fifty states. The concentration is still very heavy in the West, but there are dude ranches in Michigan, Arkansas, and the Carolinas to name a few. The geographical boundaries that the eastern dude ranch broke are growing more and more transparent with continuing communication and transportation improvements.
The basic premise of the dude ranch has not changed, but the times and the clientele have. In the 1960's the exclusivity of ranches was challenged, and after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, ranches could no longer maintain their whites-only policies. The dude ranches suffered a little in the 70's as they struggled to adjust to the changing times. Dudes could no longer afford to stay for several weeks, and the exclusive, snobbish reputation of the larger, older ranches did not help them attract a new generation of guests (Kneeland). The dude ranches also had no way to attract fresh clientele. For years, they had relied on word of mouth and the Dude Ranch Association, and as returning guests began to book for fewer and fewer weeks, they needed more guests to stay afloat.
The dude ranch managed to adjust to the new American attitude and weathered the decline of the 1960's and 70's. The ranches changed their emphasis to the family and accommodated for guests with only one week to stay and not a whole month. In the 1990's, the dude ranch is doing well. The "Old West" is back in style. New magazines such as American Cowboy and Cowboys and Indians, as well as the explosion of the country music industry are proof that America's fascination with the cowboy is as strong as ever. More recently, the popularity of the Horse Whisperer book and film have resulted in renewed interest in the bond between the human and the horse and the beauty of the western landscape. Dudes can now shop for their ranches online, giving them a chance to tour the ranch, see the horses, and even ask how the fish are biting without even a trip to the mailbox, or the telephone.
The dude ranch still offers romance, rest, and relaxation, but in a larger variety of ways. There are still working ranches, but now there are more large luxury ranches catering to well over 100 guests and offering everything from massages to French cuisine. There are ranches for singles, spa ranches, ranches that specialize in Native American lore, and the increasingly popular corporate retreat ranches to name a few.
The dude ranch still survives in the East, although it has changed considerably. The boom of the 1930's and 40's ended sometime in the late 1950's. The New York Times indexed only six articles on dude ranching between 1960 and 1980. A single article on eastern ranches reported that twenty ranches could be found in New York state in 1977 (Cole). Today, that number holds steady. Only a few of these ranches survive from the 1930's and 40's, the majority were not part of the early boom but have arisen on their own. The Eastern Dude Ranch Association that was formed in 1942 is now defunct, and no other body has risen to take its place.
There are many possible reasons for the decline in the number of ranches in the East. Susan Beadnell, second generation owner of Ridin' Hy Dude Ranch founded in 1940 in upstate New York believes that many of the ranches failed due to rising property values. If the ranch owner's children did not want to take over the business, it had to be sold. Ranches sold for high prices, and then were usually cut up into smaller pieces and sold as lots to wealthy New Yorkers looking for the ideal spot for a second home. No one could afford to buy a whole ranch at such high prices and run a dude business on it. The mortgage payments were simply too high, and dude ranching was not profitable enough to support the amount of land it required. The ranches that did survive were passed down through families, never changing hands.
Fewer dude ranches in the East does not necessarily mean fewer dudes. The ranches that did survive, like Ridin' Hy and Thousand Acres, managed to do so by expanding, and making their land work harder for them. Ridin' Hy started with 30 guests and a string of horses in 1940. Today they accommodate 200 guests and boast seven nights of entertainment, a children's program, and over a dozen recreational options. The guests are still wearing cowboy hats and saying howdy, but there are lots of things to do besides get on a horse. Thousand Acres Ranch, also in upstate New York, hosted a dozen guests in 1942 and now houses over 300. Third generation owner Patrick Arehart says people still come to ride the horses first and foremost, but if they do not want to ride there are countless other options. Most eastern dude ranches have made similar adjustments, and continued to evolve away from their roots in the cattle business and toward status as a full-fledged resort with horses.
The changes in the dude ranch reflect the changes in the expectations of the dudes. The early eastern dude ranches catered mainly to singles. Some time in the late 1960's more and more families began coming to the dude ranches, and they changed accordingly. The ranches expanded and added many children's activities and even all day children's programs. According to Beadnell, "those that didn't change didn't survive." Dudes also got a bit more tender as the years wore on. The singles that came to the ranches in the 1940's were content to share a bathroom and simply ride during the day and relax at night. Now, eastern dudes are not interested in roughing it, but would rather have "a resort with horses."
In one sense, the eastern dude ranches marked the beginning of "dude ranch exports" from the West. However, they should not be reduced to this simple catalyst role. The heyday of the eastern dude ranch was the start of a general dude ranch dispersal, but more importantly, it was a unique trend unto itself. The factors that enabled forty dude ranches to flourish in the northeast from the twenties to the fifties were certainly unique to that time and place. The dude ranch has continued to spread, but never has it had such a forceful, concentrated success in such an unlikely place.