‘American Dude Ranch’ Review: The Tumbleweed Treatment


Readers of a certain age may remember the 1991 film “City Slickers,” in which three friends from New York head west to participate in a cattle drive as a cure for their midlife malaise. Their inexperience is played for laughs, such as when Billy Crystal’s character accidentally triggers a stampede using a battery-powered coffee grinder in camp. Jack Palance, in an Oscar-winning turn as the weathered ringmaster, watches in amusement as the frightened animals destroy the tents and wagon before abruptly stopping the cattle by firing his pistol into the air. “City dwellers,” he mutters with a smile. He might as well have called the trio “guys.”

As writer Lynn Downey explains in her fiery but uneven “American Dude Ranch,” she encountered the word frequently during her time as the first historian at Levi Strauss & Co., which gave her 2016 biography of the titan blue jeans. The term derives from “fringues”, in reference to Western styles – tight pants, piped shirts and fancy boots, among others – adopted by Easterners seeking frontier adventures who wanted to look the part. But to Ms Downey’s surprise, neither ‘dude’ nor its clumsy female counterpart ‘dudine’ was an epithet like ‘tenderfoot’ or ‘greenhorn’. Rather, it was a nonjudgmental description of people who were looking for, as it says in its caption, “a touch of cowboy and the thrill of the West”, and were willing to pay for the experience.

The first ranch opened in Wolf, Wyo., in 1904, and others soon followed, mostly in the neighboring Rocky Mountain states of Montana and Colorado, but also in unlikely places like Florida and Michigan. Their leaders capitalized on nostalgia for a supposedly vanished frontier, and from the start these establishments maintained a reciprocal relationship with American popular culture. This was especially true for the motion picture industry, which shot some of the earliest westerns on dude ranches and soon featured the outfits themselves in films, like “Rawhide Romance” (1934), about “a falling wrangler in love with a visiting guy”. In the summer of 1940, about 350 dude ranches hosted 25,000 guests.

Ms. Downey notes that there was wide variation between these outfits, explaining that “each ranch offered guests something unique, whether it was architecture, food, scenery or activities. Some of the larger ranches had polo fields. In the smaller ones, guests often stepped in to help with household chores. . . . A ranch’s individuality was its strength. But all the ranches had the one thing the guys wanted. . . Horses.” Over time, the clientele itself has come to reflect this diversity. , single women appeared in the guestbooks, and eventually Jews too, despite persistent anti-Semitism. Gay and lesbian visitors “learned early on to be discreet and to pass themselves off as heterosexuals”. seldom speak of non-white guests: Indians found on dude ranches were hired as entertainment, and most other colored people worked as servants, though a “Negro Dude Ranch” in Victorville, Calif., became a destination for black celebrities, including Joe Louis and Lena Horne.

The book’s greatest asset is Mrs Downey’s obvious delight, even obsession, with its subject, which she has studied for over 15 years. This passion surfaces in telling details, such as his discovery that in a 1935 publicity questionnaire, “Dracula” star Bela Lugosi mentioned his interest in dude ranches, prompting a newspaper article titled ” Vampire to Retire to Dude Ranch”. The article explained that Lugosi wanted a broadcast “where all the midnight screams, if any, will come from guests whose digestive systems don’t go along with ranch fodder.” Best of all, there are nearly 30 pages of illustrations – including promotional railroad pamphlets, photographs, matchbook covers and print advertisements – documenting the popularity of the ranches, mostly drawn from the author’s personal memorabilia collection.

american guy ranch

By Lynn Downey


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All the same, after a galloping start, “American Dude Ranch” slows to a wandering ride. This is partly due to the lack of a central argument or solid guideline in the book; likewise, the book’s 14 chapters are untitled, giving readers little opportunity to “cut to sign” along the way. Ms Downey also misses the chance to put dude’s ranch into a comparative context – although she alludes to similar outfits that originated in Canada, she doesn’t explore them, which makes for an air of exception American to a concept that had analogues in the so-called “Mild West” immediately to the north.

The industry flourished in the 1970s, but declined as the country’s fascination with the West began to wane. Yet as of March 2021, the Dude Ranchers’ Association has nearly 100 members in the United States and a handful in Canada. Some have sought to survive by going upscale, as Ms Downey explains, offering amenities such as ‘Cordon Bleu-trained chefs and farm-to-table programmes’ – prices at some spreads exceed 700 $ per person per night, well beyond the budget of the typical American vacationer. Ironically, the real cowboys these dudes and dudines wish to emulate spend at least as much time on the ground as they do in the saddle, fixing fences and digging post holes, often for meager wages. And presumably, they leave their coffee grinders where they belong: in the kitchen.

Mr. Graybill is Professor of History and Director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University.

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