"If we can't go West, we can nevertheless go Western"

--Christian Science Monitor Magazine, July 1941.

"The Old West--with modern trimmings--can be
reached by train in an hour or less"

--New York Times, January 10, 1943.


1931 brochure for Skyland Ranch.

 

 

 

 

The first dude ranches in the east appeared as early as the late 1920's. Skyland Ranch in the planned Shenandoah National Park region advertised itself as a dude ranch and resort in 1930. However, it remained an isolated case. It was not until the mid-1930's that the eastern dude ranch came into its own in the Northeast. By 1937, an estimated 40 ranches dotted the Catskills, Long Island, Adirondacks, Berkshires, New Jersey highlands, and the Poconos. What seems at first to be a sort of frivolous buffoonery--after all no one was suggesting a fox hunt in Wyoming or a colonial village in Montana--became a very successful enterprise. Although the eastern dude ranches were the butt of many jokes, no one could argue with their popularity. The success of the eastern dude ranch is due to a congenial mix of practical considerations, historical circumstances, and changes in the American vision of the West and vacationing.

The East was not a stranger to vacationing on horseback. There were many riding resorts (like Green Trails, featured in the advertisement in the column on the left) all over the eastern seaboard that offered fox hunting, trail riding, and steeple chasing. However, the eastern dude ranch was something entirely different. The dude ranches were full-blown transplants of those in the West. A comparison of advertisements of both eastern and western dude ranches illustrates this clearly. If not for the addresses, it would be impossible to tell which were in the Rockies and which were on Long Island.

In every way, the eastern ranches strove to look and act like their western counterparts. The eastern dude ranches did not try to be anything new or different; the more confused the dude was about which state he was in the better. In its advertising brochure, Skyland Ranch sets up the western comparison in the first line: "The finest stable of saddle horses east of Eaton's Ranch, Wyoming." The eastern ranches had names like the Lazy-J, Box Canyon, Hidden Valley, G-Bar-S, Sun Canyon, and the Bar X. The most common set-up mirrored the western ranches with log or wood sided cabins, a corral, barn, and lodge with roaring fire. Activities were also the same. There were pack trips, square dances, campfires, and cookouts.

"The rude charm of the surroundings is calculated to make the visitor think he is at Painted Rock instead of Peekskill, or he may fancy himself in the Black Hills as he quarters up a steep slope. Is that an Indian behind that clump of sagebrush? Well, of course, the sagebrush may be sumac" (Parker).

Granted many "ranches" in the East adopted the dude ranch title, but not the fullout western atmosphere. However, this misappropriation only testifies to the popularity of the dude ranch even in the east.

"Those who call them resorts are often right for frequently smart proprietors have merely substituted ranch for club or Inn, and have offered free riding. This is being done more and more as the popularity of the dude ranch increases" (Morgan).

Like with the early western dude ranch, the eastern dude ranch tried to assert its authenticity while providing comfortable accommodations. Often horses and help were brought in from the western states.

"There is nothing phony about the eastern dude ranches. Most of them are owned and run by men who got their training and experience as cow hands on Western working ranches and they can rope a bronc or brand a calf with the best of them" (Searl).

The eastern dude ranch was certainly missing some aspects of the West, but the ranches were not selling the region, they were selling the lifestyle. One eastern ranch owner put it this way:

"There are certain things in the West that you can't bring East. You can't bring the vastness of the western range or the grandeur of the Rocky mountains. But we aim to run our place on a smaller scale in the genuine western style and give our guests a real taste of ranch life" (Searl).

The eastern dude ranches did tend to go a bit over the top in trying to create the authentic western experience. An article in The New York Times pointed out, "this synthetic atmosphere can be somewhat overdone, as witness the ranch that went to the extreme of building a cardboard replica of an old frontier town with a dance hall and a 'Last Chance Saloon' (MacCabe, "Eastern Dude Ranches"). One Long Island Ranch even owned 200 Mexican and Brahma steers (Markland, "To the Crazy B"). Some arranged Indian pow-wow's, and the Skyland Ranch even hosted an Indian Ride where the dudes would dress in full Native American regalia (or at least what they thought qualified as such) and ride "across the valley...to a real feast at Shuler's Ranch on the Shenandoah River" (Skyland, 7).

Another reporter tells the ironic story of one eastern ranch who went so far as to purchase a "real western Buffalo:"

"Sometimes the showmanship that marks these ranches reaches startling proportions; one, for instance, has a live buffalo tied near the corral. The animal was bought for $70 from the Central Park Zoo a few years ago" (Morgan).

If the owners supplied the setting it was the dudes that brought the imagination. They were more than willing to play "lets pretend" in the name of entertainment and relaxation. They put on their cowboy hats, levis, neckerchiefs, and boots just like the western dudes and let their imaginations do the rest.

"In the huge western saddles, galloping over dirt roads, they begin to feel akin to Buffalo Bill or the heroine in a western movie thriller. They expect Indians to pop out from behind the bushes and it isn't long before they are learning to lasseo a post in the corral just in case" (Morgan).

As funny as all this pretending sounds, it worked, and the eastern dude ranch became successful right on the heels of its western brother. In 1937 there were about 30 ranches in the east (Morgan). Five years later, that number had climbed to between 40 and 50. The Eastern Dude Ranch Association was formed in 1942, bringing organization and a certain legitimacy to the ranches of the east (Markland, "To the Crazy B").

There were several very practical reasons for the rise of the eastern dude ranch, the most obvious being time and money. The rates of the eastern ranches were not considerably cheaper than those in the west, but naturally the travel costs were greatly reduced. Despite the improvements made in transportation, the train ride west was still long and rather expensive for those of the middle classes. Commercial air travel was a bit quicker, but also very expensive. Most of the eastern ranches were within a three hour train ride of Manhattan, and some could be reached in an hour or less. The quick journey made it possible for those with limited funds and limited time to have a ranch vacation. The secretaries, teachers, and common salesmen had only a week's vacation at best and were not at liberty to make the trek west; these groups became the primary dudes of the east.

"The office boy, the red-haired stenographer, the sad-faced accountant (who turns out to be the life of the Saturday night barn dance), even the boss himself--any one of these might be the next victim of the dude-ranch craze" (Markland, "The East Goes West")

The arrival of World War II brought more success to the eastern ranches. Travel restrictions kept many close to home and the dude ranches of the east provided an outlet for wartime stress. Like the western ranches, those of the east found that the gasoline and tire restrictions forced them back to wooden wheels. The dudes loved to be greeted at the train station by a handsome four-in-hand or a beat-up wagon with old Bessie in harness. This kind of enforced "hardship" was fun on the dude ranch. Meals were also cut back, but guests were happily informed that they did not have to bring their ration books (Parker). Guests also did not feel so guilty going on a simple, nearby ranch vacation. It was not extravagant, and ranch life was a moral booster, a confirmation of those things held truly American.

"Fun--good healthy fun, with overtones of the struggle in which we are now engaged--is the keynote of the accelerated dude ranch activities in the East this historic Fall of 1942" (Markland, "Eastern Dude Ranches").

The reasons for the success of the eastern dude ranch were not limited to logistical and fiscal concerns. It was born because the western lifestyle had evolved into a recognizable icon, packageable and exportable. Dude ranch was popular, as established in Romance, Rest and Recreation, and there were strong logistical and fiscal reasons to look for the dude ranch in the east, but what was the mindset that American's adopted to accept the eastern dude ranch so whole heartedly in the 30's, 40's, and 50's?

The exportation of the West to the eastern seaboard was largely enabled by film, and other western appearances on the pop culture scene. Hollywood produced 100 western pictures a year throughout the 1920's and between 1930 and 1954 over 2,000 low budget westerns were produced. In addition, the singing, acting cowboys--Gene Autry and Roy Rogers-- were amazingly popular (White, 135). People did not have to go west, the West came to them. The West was also popular in dime novels and pulp magazines. There were rodeos and other Wild West spectacles in the east through the 1940's, including The Madison Square Garden World's Championship Rodeo which ran from 1929-1954. These popular images created expectations in the minds of potential dudes about what the western lifestyle was like. The eastern dude ranch was successful because it could easily meet and surpass this Hollywood version of the West right in New Jersey.

With the ever present hum of the machine age in the background, there was a common belief that the wild West was not so wild anymore. The harnessing of the western rivers by the Hoover (Boulder) (1930-1935) and Coulee Dams (1934-41), the electric power they created, and the improved transportation systems somehow tamed the West in the eyes of the East. (For more on the Hoover Dam see the AS@UVA site The Hoover Dam: Lonely Lands Made Fruitful.) The highway acts of 1921 and 1934 extended and improved both interstate and secondary roads. The automobile could now invade regions that had once been ruled by the horse (Jakle, 126). The Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge were both completed in the late 1930's, proving that the auto could even cross water. In 1935, Greyhound buslines bought out many of the smaller bus companies and began running transcontinental service. The commercial airline industry was also taking off, flying coast to coast in 17 hours by 1938 (Jakle, 162). Since the West was essentially won, it could now be recreated as easily in the Berkshires as in the Rockies.

Although people continued to look for some sort of authenticity at the dude ranch--are these real Wyoming horses? Is the wrangler from Colorado? Does he ride in the rodeo on Saturday night?--it was essentially viewed as a representation. The ranches in the west were moving from the old cattle/dude outfits to primarily dude ranches (as discussed in Western Beginnings). This transition from authentic to representation in the West made the eastern dude ranches possible. In the East, guests accepted the represented West without question because they were not confused by geography. The West does not belong in the East, therefore dudes did not judge the eastern ranches by the standard of the "real ranch." In the West, the difference between real and represented is blurred, a problem that Bernard DeVoto takes up below.

At this time, the eastern dude ranch was in the company of a number of efforts to create full scale reproductions of distinctly American icons. J. D. Rockefeller Jr. began work on Colonial Williamsburg in 1928, and the village opened its gates in 1932. Williamsburg's popularity exceeded all expectations, and the number of visitors doubled annually for the next decade (Kammen, 356). In the colonial village, visitors entered an entirely different century and immersed themselves in its culture. Henry Ford was also beginning to make his contribution to the preservation of America by collecting houses and other sundry items from all times and locations in order to create his own patchwork version of Williamsburg: the Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. He said of the project, "When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived; and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition" (qtd. in Kammen, 353).

Later in the decade, the 1939 New York World's Fair invited visitors to enter "The World of Tomorrow." (For more on the 1939 World's Fair see the AS@UVA site The Iconography of Hope: The 1939-40 New York World's Fair) Various exhibits immersed the visitors in an environment of the future. In General Motor's "Futurama" exhibition, visitors observed a city of 1960 built to scale, and at the tour's conclusion, they stepped into a full-size production of the city. In many different places in the 1930's, Americans were learning to pretend in order to be entertained and educated. The eastern dude ranch merely asked the same. In part, these reproductions were made feasible by the advances in the machine age, and their popularity can be partially attributed to the continuing surge of nationalism during the depression and World War II. These exhibitions, the dude ranch included, allowed Americans to see where they came from and where they were going at a time when the national consciousness needed soothing.

Naturally the eastern ranches had their critics, or more appropriately, their hecklers. However, this "dude ranch criticism" did not appear until the late 1940's, when the eastern ranches had been going strong for over a decade. A few articles pointed out that the eastern ranches were not trying to recreate the West, but only live up to the Hollywood expectations of its visitors. The New York Times Magazine ran a series of cartoons called Yippie Yee in 1947. The accompanying article parodied the over-done jargon of the dude ranch and pointed out that if all the cowhands were dude wranglers, who were they imitating?

"Howdy, pardner! We'd shore admire for you to pack yore little ole saddlebags and hit the little ole trail out to the little ole dude ranch country this time of year. No trouble prospecting yourself a likely home on the range for a brisk week-end. Dude ranches in the East are multiplying as think as ticks on a mustang--forty-six counted up to last night, most of them in the Hudson Valley and the Adirondacks. Getting so, you might as well look for soufflés in a chuck wagon as cowhands on the Tonto Rim nowadays. All the punchers have circulated to New York State to rassle dudes...Are you hankering for that authentic atmosphere? Why, gals and galoots, just rein in to Navajo or Cimarron or any leading ranch near by, and you'd allow as how you were way out West on--well, on the Republic or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lots in Hollywood at best."

The article continued with a series of definitions for the eastern dude to study, such as:

"ROUND-UP-- This is the way we catch our horse so early in the morning. The hands stampede the herd round the corral with a whoop and a holler, so the boss can show off the trick roping he learned in correspondence school. Cutting out horses with a lasso also impresses the customers. The "yippee!" makes the beasts buck with fright, which dudes mistake for a wild spirit."

The cartoon in the left column Colliers in 1950 along with an article entitled "Out Whar the East Begins." In these excerpts, the author pours the western vernacular on thick and makes fun of the dude's ability to endure hardship not for the sake of simplicity but to look the part of the cowboy.

 

"Now that Daddy's boy has grown to man's estate, he can coil his nylon lariat and ride Old Paint (his old jalopy) up the Chisholm Trail to the Catskills, where men are men, and women are also men, wearing pants from Saks Fifth Avenue. The wild East is with us, buckoes. The dude ranches are grazing tourists in some of the finest rangeland in the Empire State. The West just loaded up its bedrolls on a chuck wagon and come East."

"After dinner, it is but a short stroll to the Bar-None Saloon, which is a good thing because the cowboy boots are killing you."

"The next morning before sunrise the angle iron starts banging again and the guests leap out of bed at eleven thirty to go down to a dyed in the wool ranch breakfast, consisting of woolen pancakes dyed brown, after which those who do not have to be carried leap back into bed."

The only serious, more thoughtful piece on the eastern dudes and their effect on America came from Bernard DeVoto in his column for Harper's Magazine, "The Easy Chair." Although DeVoto begins by poking a little fun at the eastern dudes, he ends by criticizing the West, not the East. The eastern dudes are a natural outcome of the plethora of popular culture images of the West. He calls the ranches "the offspring you get by crossing a myth with the advertising business" (58). According to DeVoto, they are harmless leisure hounds imitating Gene Autry for entertainment and fun. However, to think that there is any more significance to the cowboy getup is where the dude fantasy becomes serious. "But what is still funnier is that this splendid efflorescence is referred, both historically and in the wearer's mind, back to the Cattle Kingdom and the open range, what the myth calls the Old West." DeVoto argues that clinging to this myth has held the West back economically.

"The bronzed horseman with his stylized rituals and funny clothes is fine for Easterners, who might as well indulge that fantasy as any other...But he [the bronzed horseman] is a menace to Westerners who are not in the cattle business, which is to say ninety-five percent of all Westerners...They see the medieval cattle business of their section through a mist of Frederic Remington and feel themselves all lordly ranch-owners of the era before the Big Freeze. So they let incompetent ranchers waste the drinking water on their tables and the profits of their farms and factories. They line up beside the incompetents whenever anyone points out what is going on, for is not the Old West, with all its glory and derring-do, at stake (60)?"

Despite their hecklers, the eastern dude ranches were an unconditional success. They were convenient, they played in to expectations of the dudes, and they were downright fun. The eastern ranches offered all of the things that people found so attractive about the western ranches--informality, camaraderie, exercise, and a link to the American past--and they came at a time when guests could accept them as a representation of the Old West, and when transportation was good enough to tame the West, but difficult enough to make it a lot easier and cheaper to stay closer to home. The proliferation of dude ranches in the east cannot be narrowed down to one cause, but occurred out of a variety of circumstances working simultaneously.


Advertisement for a riding resort from The New York Times, 1941.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Cabins at Skyland Ranch, 1930.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Bungalow at Skyland Ranch, 1930.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Compare this set of ads from The New York Times, 1942 for eastern dude ranches to the ads below for western dude ranches.

 

 

 

 

 


The New York Times, 1938.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Indian ride at Skyland Ranch, 1930.

 

 

 

 

 


Note the dude ranch is advertised alongside other hotels and resorts. The New York Times, 1949.

 

 

 

 


There are countless advertisements like these from The New York Times, 1936-1955, these are from 1950.

 

 

 

 

 


Advertisement from The New York Times, 1941.

 

 

 

 


Judging by this man's attire, some eastern dudes were not ready to don complete western garb. You can see the easterner in this man's tall boots, cloth hat and cavalry type saddle (Skyland Ranch brochure,1930).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1938, another bit of proof that man could and would control nature. From Travel, 1938.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Cartoon from Colliers, 1950.