Broncos in the Berkshires?
Cowpokes in the Poconos?
Lariats on Long Island?

It would seem unlikely. However, in the late 1920's, the cowboy lifestyle packed up its bedroll and came east in the form of the dude ranch. What seems to be just another testament to American capitalism and our ever present desire to don a cowboy hat is really a window into the history and temperament of America from the 1920's to the 1950's. The phenomenon of the eastern dude ranch has a lot to tell us about the changes in the economy, the labor force, transportation, tourism, the media, and the American imagination.

This site will explain why the eastern dude ranch became so popular at the end of the depression and through World War II and how this popularity transformed the dude ranch into a more and more virtual experience. The history of the dude ranch is essentially a movement from the authentic ranch experience of riding alongside the cowboys to a resort vacation where the guests wear cowboy hats and riding is one of many options. This evolution is not true for all dude ranches, but it is a trend of the industry that started in the 1930's and continues even now. It was in the 1930's and 40's that the essential change occurred, however, for that is when the dude ranch broke away from its cattle ranching roots and created a place for itself, both economically and socially.

The site includes three sections which can be read in any order. However, it is probably best to start with Western Beginnings. This section charts the evolution of the dude ranch from a cattle ranchers' sideline to its status as an integral part of the western economy, and the changes in the dude ranch experience that that evolution caused. For the dude ranch to move East, it had to possess certain qualities that were not tied to its location. Romance, Rest, and Recreation examines what made the dude ranch vacation so unique and so popular, and how these qualities fulfilled tourists desires and expectations at that time. Heading East, as the title suggests, deals with the practical and historical circumstances that enabled the dude ranch to be successful in New England and the American mindset that welcomed the chance to spend a weekend on the ranges of the East. The final essay, End of the Trail, briefly summarizes where the dude ranch is today, including reasons why the dude ranch faded in the east, and where the tradition continues.

Happy Trails!

Site created by Emily Zimmerman


American Studies Program
University of Virginia
July 22, 1998