Sunday, January 3, 2010


We were sitting at a table in the Rustic Pine steak house in Dubois, Wyoming, enjoying a buffalo steak and all the trimmings. As I forked a succulent piece of meat into my mouth, I looked out the window to observe a vehicle from the CM Ranch unloading the “Dudes.” All were dressed in their new western finery and best square dancing attire; they were going to the Outlaw Saloon for a night on the town. I looked at the Dudes as if they were a tourist attraction, odd animals from the East trying to fit into the West. These odd animals have been migrating to the West every summer for over 100 years, buying into a mythic West as advertised and promoted by ranchers and railroads.

Dubois Wyoming

Dude ranching in the American West began in 1879 when Howard Eaton and his brothers moved from Pennsylvania to the Dakota badlands, near Medora. Being the entrepreneurs that they were, the Eaton brothers started a business to supply buffalo, elk and deer meat to the men building the Northern Pacific Railroad. Once the railroad was finished and there was no longer a demand for their services, the Eatons developed a thriving cattle and sheep business, which they called Custer Trail Cattle Company and subsequently named their ranch the Custer Trail Ranch in 1882. They named their outfit for George Armstrong Custer who camped on the site of their ranch on his way to the Little Big Horn six years earlier.

Custer Trail Ranch

Howard, Alden and Willis Eaton

The countryside surrounding the ranch was beautiful open country with picturesque rocks and Buttes, cold rushing creeks, and towering pines and cottonwoods, but perhaps most importantly, an environment teaming with game. In this ideal setting all that was needed were visitors and friends to enjoy these fine attributes of the American West. The Eatons were gracious hosts to many of their Eastern friends, including Theodore Roosevelt. But, it was due to the generosity of one particular friend that the Dude Ranch era was born. This friend, who haled from the East, enjoyed his stay at the Eaton Ranch so much that he told Howard Eaton, “I’m having a good time. I need the outdoor life and I don’t want to go home. I’ve got plenty of money and I’d consider it a favor if you’d let me stay on awhile and pay something each week for my board and the use of a horse.” Word spread and it was not long before Eaton allowed his friends to pay their way at his ranch.

Winter at Wolf, Wyoming Ranch

Dudes at Wolf Creek Ranch

Wolf Creek Ranch, 2006

It is said that Howard Eaton was the first person to refer to his eastern visitors as Dudes. If a person looks up the definition of dude in the World Book dictionary they will read that a dude is “a man who pays too much attention to his clothes; a man of affected or excessive refinement in manners, speech, or dress; dandy.” The definition included city bred people who vacation on a ranch. Mr. Eaton began referring to his guests as dudes, not in a derogatory manner, but more to reflect a stranger to a new county. Eventually, because of all the eastern folks who stayed at the Eaton ranch each summer, locals started calling the Eaton place the dude ranch.

From Howard Eaton’s ranch in North Dakota, he began organizing pack and hunting trips for his guest to Yellowstone National Park. Eventually these dudes were the impetus for many of the trappings associated with western culture-- “Flapjacks and homemade sourdough bread, horse packing into wilderness areas, a swim in a clear, blue mountain lake, songs around a crackling campfire and the ever-present aroma of sun-cured pine needles.” They wore western clothing, cowboy boots and hats and extolled the western lifestyle.

Seeing that it would be more advantageous for his guests if his outfit were closer to the Yellowstone country, Eaton relocated his ranch in 1904 to Wolf, Wyoming, on the old Bozeman Trail in the Big Horn Mountains. At the new Eaton Ranch, he built guest cabins designed for visitors to be independent but still part of the ranch experience.

Eaton set a style and precedent in the development of dude ranches in the American West, especially in the Yellowstone Grand Teton vicinity. The early ranches all had one thing in common; they had easy access to the railroads. Promoters of The Northern Pacific, Burlington and Union Pacific Railroads were very active in advertising Dude Ranches to potential travelers from the East. In 1926, executives at The Northern Pacific helped establish the Dude Ranchers Association in order to encourage western hospitality and thereby increasing passenger service. To further their cause, in the 1920s The Northern Pacific spent one million dollars promoting the West. Dude Ranchers were so eager for business that they arranged special trains to bring the Eastern Dude to the West. The Valley Ranch in Wyoming had special Pullman Cars and a diner car for travel from New York City to Wyoming. The cars were switched between railroads until they finally reach Cody.

There are many historic ranches that are still in operation in the West. Brooks Lake Lodge or The Diamond G Ranch, located between Dubois and Grand Teton National Park is one of the oldest dude ranches still operating. It began as a dude ranch in 1923. The Ranch is on Brooks Lake just west of Togwotee pass and ideally located thirty miles east of Yellowstone. The Lodge served as a stopover in the 1920s for the many tourists passing through the area on their way to Yellowstone.

Brooks Lake Lodge

Brooks Lake Lodge

Brooks Lake Lodge, 2006

Today there are hundreds of ranches in the Rocky Mountain West, where eastern guests try to absorb the western lifestyle and enjoy the abundance of wildlife and natural beauty that the West has to offer. I hope the Dudes who got out of the CM Ranch wagon in front of the Rustic Pine in Dubois enjoyed their night on the town. If they went back to their Eastern homes bragging about western hospitality, they have Howard Eaton to thanks for making room in the West for visitors he called Dudes.

Brooks Lake Lodge

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