"Don't misunderstand the term 'dude.' It's a legitimate hundred
per cent American term in Wyoming nomenclature--
and means any visitor from 'outside' just as 'savage'
means the rancher, his cowboys, and all the rest of his
business associates--which is to say his 'outfit'"

"Rope Your Own, by the Head Wrangler", Sunset, 1926.

"a dude, in western parlance, is any visitor from the
'outside' who pays to stay on a ranch or hires a local inhabitant
to guide or cook for him. An easterner or a westerner,
all are the same to the cow-puncher--so long as one is city
bred, he's a dude"

--Sunset, June, 1930.

From The Saturday Evening Post, 1939.

Scenes from Eaton's Ranch appearing in Dude Ranches of the Big Horn Mountains, late 1920's.


Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, a "dude" was a somewhat demeaning term used in the West for someone simply "not from around here." It was applied equally to the lady from New York as the gentleman from Oklahoma. As tourism to the west increased, the dude became a common-place, mildly annoying figure, but as the century turned and the bottom of the cattle market dropped out after World War I, ranchers began to see the dudes in a new light. They were as good as money in the bank. The railroads, concession stands, hotels, and campgrounds had been making money off the dudes for years, and why couldn't the cattle ranchers do the same?

There is no definitive origin of the dude ranch, but Eaton Ranch in Wyoming is the one that is most often credited with being first. The Eaton brothers were Pittsburgh natives who bought a ranch in the Dakotas in 1879. They were bombarded with visits from their old friends in the East. In time, the visitors realized what a burden they were becoming to the Eatons, and they offered to pay for their room and board. The Eatons agreed to this, thinking it would stifle the flow of visitors to their door. It had the exact opposite effect. Visitors no longer felt uncomfortable staying at the ranch if they were paying, and the dude ranch system was born. When the Eatons moved the ranch to Wyoming in 1904, their paying guests followed. Capitalizing on their new, more picturesque setting, the Eatons began to take their dude ranching as seriously as their livestock, and they have been in the dude business ever since (Fish).

There were a few other "pioneering" dude ranches at the turn of the century, but the dude ranching industry did not really take off until the 1920's. The new industry's eventual success was insured throughout the 1900's and 1910's by the continually increasing number of tourists seeking their pleasures in the West. Teddy Roosevelt, a long-time champion of the American West declared it the "playground of the American people." Roosevelt was in a sense the first and most prominent dude. He went to the West not to stay and live, but to be reborn in spirit, and hardened in flesh. He would return to the East a renewed man. Roosevelt emphasized the spirituality of the open places as a tonic for life in the East, declaring: "Every visitor who comes to these uplifting scenes will return to Life's highway more alive and more kind" (Mills, 52).

In 1909, the New York Times reported that twice as many visitors were going west as the year before ("Many Tourists"). The increase was mainly due to the rise in automobile touring and the popularity of the National Parks. As the decade progressed, and the political situation in Europe became more unsettled, more Americans rallied to the "See America First" campaign. The railroads promoted the tourist road west and offered specials to the National Parks. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Company reported in 1923 that travel to the west was up 23%. In the same year, visitors to Yellowstone National Park increased 70%, and visitors to the more remote Glacier National Park were up 55% ("More Tourists"). The dude ranch could not have caught on if Americans had not found the West so intriguing and accessible. (For more on the national parks see the AS@UVA site All Aboard; The Role of the Railroads in Protecting, Promoting, and Selling Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks)

While many Americans were touring the West, still more were captivated by it through paintings, magazines, fiction, and the Wild West Shows. The glamorization of the cowboy in popular culture had a tremendous influence on selling not only the West as a region, but the western mystique and lifestyle. In the later half of the 19th century, paintings and sculpture by Frederick Remington and Charley Russell portrayed the colorful, lonely, and sometimes tragic figure of the cowboy against the romantic western landscape. In the 1880's, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show performed for millions, giving them a taste of the wild, woolly, mythic west. The image of Buffalo Bill appeared constantly in promotions for the Wyoming dude ranches, and a museum dedicated to him opened in Cody in 1927 (Chicago, Dude Ranch Life, 39). (For more on Buffalo Bill see the AS@UVA site Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.) The cowboy also found his way into films like The Great Train Robbery (1903) and the novels of Zane Gray and Owen Wister (The Virginian, 1902). (For more on the cowboy in film see the AS@UVA site The West in Silent Film.)

American's fascination with the western lifestyle led them to seek it out for themselves in the late 1910's and 20's. This desire to see the "real" west, a place that earlier travelers had avoided, opting instead for the National Parks and Monuments, coincided with a drop in the cattle market in the late teens. Just as wealthy tourists were looking for a way to live the western lifestyle, the ranchers were looking for another way to survive financially without giving up their way of life. In addition to these key factors, the aftermath of World War I continued to keep many Americans home through the 1920's, making the timing for the dude ranch ideal. The Saturday Evening Post ran a series of articles called "Dude Wrangler" in 1924 (later published in a book) and The New York Times first mentioned the dude ranch vacation in 1926, ("Where Americans") and in 1930, ran the first feature article, "Wild West De Luxe on the Dude Ranch."

This description from an advertising booklet published by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Company sums up the combination of romance and relaxation offered at the dude ranches of the late 1920's.

"Acceding to the demand of friends drawn westward by the fame of the Big Horns, ranchers have come more and more to the practice of throwing open the wide portals of their domain to the entertainment of guests. Old established ranches of the highest type now have a new and interesting field of activity--that of serving as host to greatly increasing numbers of 'dudes' from back East, come to the Big Horns for rest, for recreation, for entertainment of a sort possible only here, for horseback riding in western cowboy saddles, for range riding, mountain climbing, trial hiking, some of the finest trout fishing in the world, and for the enjoyment to be taken from the thrills which come from mere observation of the conduct of the large scale affairs on a big western ranch" (Dude Ranches in the Big Horn Mountains, 7).

Pamphlets like this one were just one of the ways that the railroads promoted western travel in general and the dude ranches in particular. Despite the increasing popularity and ease of auto touring the vast majority of dudes came by rail. By 1935, most railroads featured comfortable, air-conditioned Pullman cars, and rates were reasonable (Henderson). Besides, most dudes came west to be on the ranch, not tour the countryside in a noisy auto. The railroads realized this and targeted the dudes accordingly. Most of the photographs used in the travel articles, including nearly all of the images reproduced on this page, were supplied courtesy of the railroads. The cooperation of the rail companies was crucial to the success of the fledging dude industry. Although the established ranches were advertised by word of mouth, for the newer and lesser known ranches, the railroads provided an advertising resource that they did not have and could not afford individually. Later, the dude ranching associations would provide ranch specifics to potential dudes, but prior to the 1930's, the railroad served as the only clearing house for guest ranch information.

The dude ranches of the 1920's were largely a playground for the rich. The ranches were not luxurious, but the journey west was expensive and most dudes stayed for several weeks, if not the whole summer. The week-long vacation of the average middle class American did not allow for such extravagance. The dude ranch quickly became accepted as a society vacation.

"lately the dude ranch has taken its place on the social calendar as a thing that one must 'do,' and the Social Register lists dilatory domiciles in Montana and Wyoming along with those in Southampton and Antibis" (Adams).

One young woman, a Miss Anne Colgate, debuted in 1939 at Teepee Lodge in Wyoming. Attire was western, and dinner was barbecue ("Barbecue Dance").

Dude ranches usually charged between $25-$80 per week per person. This almost always included room, board, horse, and housekeeping. Pack trips were extra. The guests stayed in rustic cabins that combined all the ambiance of the Old West with the modern plumbing and electricity of the East. The Eatons even allowed guests to build cabins on the property, and many dudes kept their privately owned horses with the herd year round. Both the ranchers and the guests considered the dude ranch their home. Many ranches published newsletters, and almost all advertising was done by word of mouth. Indeed, at some establishments, the guests even had to supply references (Chicago, Dude Ranches, 15). Ranchers estimated that 90% of their clientele was from New York City ("Airlines").

All of the early ranches were working ranches first and guest outfits second. Many of the activities for the guests revolved around the work of the ranch, and guests had considerable freedom to participate or simply ride the trails alone. Evenings were spent singing, gossiping, or if a guest was particularly well-liked, trading stories with the wranglers. For most dudes, the West itself was entertainment enough in the form of rodeos, festivals, and a visit to the nearest reservation for an Indian pow-wow.

During the late 1920's and early 30's, the dude ranch industry began to expand and as a result became more organized. By various estimates, there were almost 200 ranches that catered to guests in the West by the early 1930's. For the ranchers, dudes were becoming less a sideline and more a mainstay. Ranches began to crop up that were solely for the care of dudes. The dude ranch industry experienced an considerable boom from the mid-30's until World War II. In 1936, The New York Times estimated that about 500 ranches were catering to more than 15,000 dudes annually ("More Ranches"). By 1940, the number of dudes heading west increased to 25,000 (Borland, "Dudes at Home"). To supplement their income, dudes-only ranches tried to diversify, offering skiing, hunting, and cozy fires during the winter. In response to the increasing demand for some sort of body to facilitate voluntary organization of the growing number of guest operations, The Dude Ranchers Association was formed in 1931 ("Airlines"), and 1935 saw the birth of the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranchers Association and the Dude Ranch Association of Billings, Montana. (Henderson). The creation of the associations made the dude ranch more user-friendly and less intimidating. They answered questions for potential dudes and provided standards that each member ranch had to maintain. Further proof that the dude ranch was now a viable part of the western landscape and economy came in 1935 when the University of Wyoming began to offer a four-year degree program called "Recreational Ranching", combining "hotel management and horseology" ("Students Learn").

As the dude ranches' popularity grew, they began to spread geographically, and the burgeoning commercial airline industry staked a claim in the dude business. The first core ranches, like the Eatons and Valley Ranch, were clustered around Yellowstone National Park. As the enthusiasm for dude life grew, they spread throughout the Rocky Mountain region. In 1931, a commercial airport was built in Cheyenne catering specifically to the dude ranches. The airport was possibly a bit ahead of its time, as flights from New York City still took nineteen hours and were considerably more expensive than the train ("Airlines"). In the late 1930's, ranches began to appear in the Southwest and California, and the airline found its niche. Arizona and New Mexico were ideal spots for those who wanted to relax on horseback in the winter sunshine (Stillman, 16). American Airlines' "Skysleeper" could make the trip to Arizona overnight with only one stop (Carlyle). Air travel certainly had an impact on the dude ranch, particularly in the Southwest, as it added excitement and glamour to the ranch vacation. The commercial airlines did not become a serious consideration until after World War II, however (Jakle, 182).

As the East began a full out invasion of the West, the dude ranch made changes to accommodate the rush. Dude ranches became less about cattle and more about image and romance. The increased demand for help changed the make up of the wrangler. No longer was he a dyed-in-the-wool westerner, but an college boy who knew his way around a horse, and more importantly, could hold a conversation and act the part.

"College youths make ideal ranch hands nowadays. This is not a cue for us manure-reared cowboys to snicker or snort; it's just a plain business fact. A big strapping halfback from Texas U., Montana U., or Colorado U...he dances well and has a spicy, respectable patter...All he needs in the way of staging is the conventional Stetson, the heavy shirt with contrasty silk neckerchief, levi pants, boots and spurs" (Arnold, 32).

"The official banishment of the old-fashioned cow-hand from tourist haunts took place recently, when an officer of the Colorado Dude Ranchers Association admitted the eastern paying guests go West for romance rather than for ranching, and for that reason are interested in decorative young men rather than 'good top hands.' He also pointed out the economic advantage to the ranchers, since good-looking young men are more in abundance and cheaper to hire than skillful cowboys" (Dallas, "Dude Ranch Dresses Up").

It was estimated that 10% of the ranches were owned and run by former dudes (Sprague, "Dude Ranches"), and even the president of the Dude Ranchers Association in 1940 was a Princeton graduate ("Dudes Converge"). These changes were subtle, but little by little they pulled the dude ranch away from its roots. No longer was the host a cattle rancher trying to supplement his livestock income. He could be a former businessman, lawyer, or doctor who made his fortune in the East and came west looking for adventure, like the pioneers of years ago, only with deeper pockets and less common sense. The elements of dude life changed under these circumstances. Tennis courts, swimming pools, and putting greens began to appear, and dude activities no longer revolved around the chores of the ranch. The singing cowboy at the campfire was hired from town, and some dudes forfeited their plain shirts and levis for more a more colorful, Roy Rogers look.

As the dude ranches became more glamorous, other, less-traveled places began to react by advertising themselves as the "real west" where, as this letter promoting Jackson Hole suggests, less is more.

"This is a real western town. Everything here is genuine, with no show put on for tourists. There is not even a movie house. Jackson Hole is so far removed from a large city that it is not too much troubled by the laws of Wyoming...The mail comes in twice a week, dropped into a large meadow from a government airplane...There are no direct train connections" (Hall).

This claim to the "real West" represents a turn around from a decade before. The ranches in the early 1920's advertised that they had mail going out everyday and were close to the train depot. Now, the lesser known corners of the mountain states were touting their remoteness and isolation.

If this boom brought some ranches into the realm of the frivolous, World War II corralled them back to their roots. The armed forces demanded beef, and the ranchers in the West answered by cutting back on dudes and stepping up cattle production. Dudes that did venture to the ranches were often met by stagecoach, due to the lack of rubber for truck tires. The rationing trimmed meals down, and the shortage of help put the dudes to work. Some ranches even offered reduced rates for dudes that were willing to put in a few hours of labor ("On Western Ranches"). Because of this diversification, the cattle/dude ranches did not suffer during the war. The cattle market was better than ever, and ranches were able to continue to attract guests because people did not feel so guilty vacationing on a working ranch as they would sipping martinis in Martha's Vineyard. An article in Independent Woman touted that "Life on a pack trip might be good training in case you should be called to help Uncle Sam with some of the feminine chores of the defense program" (Ray). Some of the dudes-only ranches did fall on hard times during the war. Tourism was down and they had nothing to fall back on.

After the war, the dude ranches enjoyed the general prosperity of the rest of the country. The improvements in transportation during the war meant better roads for the increasing number of motorists and commercial airline travel was becoming more and more practical. The advent of the affordable commercial flight brought even more dudes west, and the variety in ranches began to broaden. Some still held to the old ways, raising cattle and giving guests simple accommodations. At the same time, more luxury ranches began to appear. This created a conflict between the locals and the "new money". The westerners did not mind having the dudes as guests, but when they came to stay there were often hard feelings and economic consequences.

"Dozens of established ranches would like to expand, but they are running into direct competition with unheard-of amounts of capital poured into new dude enterprises by Midwest financiers and, on a smaller scale, veterans. Some of these projects undoubtedly are sound, but many seem likely to blow up in time" (Sprague, "Mixed Dude Ranch Outlook").

One of these new enterprises was the Flying L, a dude ranch/airpark started by one entreprenuring Texan in 1947. The Flying L was a far cry from the Eaton's Ranch of the 1920's. It had all the amenities of a five star resort, plus riding and an airstrip so those with private planes could land right on premises. At its grand opening, the ranch held a fashion show, proving that the dude ranch had replaced cattle with fashion. (see pictures at left) For a vacation that started out as a simple retreat from the busy city, the dude ranch could now require as many outfits as a cruise to Europe.

Advertisement for The Valley Ranch from Arts and Decoration Magazine 1941.





From Arts and Decorations, 194





From Arts and Decorations, 1941.



From The Saturday Evening Post, 1939.




From Ranch Life in the Buffalo Bill Country, 192?



From The Saturday Evening Post, 1939.




Pamphlet written by the Chicago, Quincy, and Burlington railroad company to promote the dude ranches, 192?



Pamphlet written by the Chicago, Quincy, and Burlington railroad company to promote the dude ranches, 192?.



From Arts and Decorations, 1941.



Ads from the New York Times, 1936-1942.

From The Saturday Evening Post, 1939.



A southwest ranch. From, Arts and Decoration, 1941.


From Travel, 1940.


From The Saturday Evening Post, 1939.




This dude ranch swimsuit was right in style at the Flying L, but according to its caption was not seaworthy, from Life, 1949.




Dude fashions from Life, 1949.




Fashion show at the Flying L, from Life, 1949.