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What is a Dude Ranch? A Brief History

winter dude ranch

Today, “dude” means something like “bro”. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the word had a different slang meaning. Back then, a “dude” was an urbanite. It’s what western cattle ranchers, a.k.a. cowboys, called big-shot city slickers.

When city dwellers from the East Coast discovered that ranch visits in the wide open West made for great vacations, ranches started hosting them – and eventually charging them for their stays. Ranches that opened up to the tourism business were called guest ranches, or “dude ranches”. Here are a few imponderables about dude ranches and their origins.

Who were the very first dude ranchers?

The first dude ranch was located in the Dakota Badlands. Back in the 1880’s, cattle was booming in that region. An enterprising man by the name of Howard Eaton and his brothers started the Custer Trail Ranch and fell in love with the Western cowboy lifestyle. They wrote letters to their friends and family back on the East Coast about all the wild adventures they were having.

How did the word spread about ranch visits?

The early popularity of dude ranches owes itself, at least in part, to one of America’s most outdoorsy presidents, Teddy Roosevelt. He caught wind of the Eaton Brothers’ establishment and wanted a taste of cowboy life. Once he visited, he couldn’t get enough of the hunting, fishing, and horseback riding fun. Teddy bought his own ranch nearby – the Maltese Cross Ranch.

President Roosevelt’s accounts of ranch life fanned the flames of curiosity and adventure for Easterners about the Great American West. The well-dressed, shiny-shoed “dudes” started traveling out west in droves – both by the burgeoning railway system and in newfangled automobiles that started appearing in the early 20th century.

Where Ranch Visits Really Free Once?

Yes indeed! When “dude” guests first started appearing in the early years, there was no precedent for charging them money. In fact, it was an insult to western hospitality to try to pay for a several-day stay. Then, after a series of hardships hit ranchers who were receiving guests (and after they started tallying up the bills on how much extra they were spending on food and booze!) they decided to set themselves up as bona fide lodging businesses. The Eaton Brothers calculated that they would have to charge $10 a week per guest.

In the 1920s, the cattle industry cooled down and many ranchers hit hard times. They soon began to rely on their hospitality services to supplement their incomes. Wanting to take their guest ranches to the next level, they partnered up with Northern Pacific Railway and formed the Dude Ranchers’ Association in 1926. The goal was to ramp up the marketing, sales, and standards of the dude ranch experience.

What Do All Dude Ranches Have in Common?

Since their beginnings, dude ranches have prided themselves on the unique, authentic experience it delivers to city-dwelling guests in need of an escape outdoors. These special ranches all have deep histories and local traditions, and they take their hospitality very seriously. Ranches are a country home for their visitors, where guests feel like family among the staff and ranch hands.

Ranch life keeps itself entertaining in creative ways – costume parties, friendly competitions, stunts, pranks, inside jokes – and guests are always invited to join in! Combine those antics with good home cooking, fun outdoor activities, and big-sky western sunsets, and it’s no wonder why dude ranches have thrived as healthy, soulful retreats for city slickers generation after generation.

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