95 Years With the Dudes

When he was a teenager, New York native Larry Larom saw Buffalo Bill’s Wild West during one of its appearances in the city between 1907 and 1909. (By the way, if you want to show your Western authenticity credentials, never call the Wild West a show, because Buffalo Bill didn’t either.)

Larom actually got to meet the great man, and rode in the Deadwood stage during one of the performances. His father was a partner in the Mark Cross leather goods company, so perhaps he had some connections to get his son an introduction. Anyway, the young Larom was already an outdoorsman, and in 1910 he took his first trip West, spending the summer in a cabin on the south fork of the Shoshone River near Cody, Wyoming. He went back in 1914 with his friend Winthrop Brooks (grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers clothing company) and in 1915 he opened a dude ranch to offer his West to his eastern friends, which he called the Valley Ranch.

This wasn’t a new idea. Dude ranches had been around for twenty years, and two of the first and biggest ranches were Eatons’ in Wolf, Wyoming, and the OTO near Gardiner, Montana. But Larom had the enthusiasm of the newly-converted, and within a decade he was dude ranching’s biggest cheerleader.

Many ranches were seat-of-the-pants operations, and their owners didn’t know much about what the others were doing. Larom, who had grown up in a household devoted to solid American business, thought this needed to change. He believed dude ranching was the future of western tourism. And there were dudes enough for everyone.

So, 95 years ago today, Larom and a group of dude ranchers from Montana and Wyoming got together to form an organization of their own. On September 27-28, 1926, they gathered at the Bozeman Hotel and by the time the meeting was over, the group had elected officers (with Larom as President, no surprise) and — more importantly — had chosen their name.

Writers and journalists called visitors to their ranches dudes, and the term dude ranch had been around since about 1899. But some people sneered when they said the word, because it originally meant a man who wore fancy clothes and didn’t like to get his hands dirty. (Female dudes were dudines.)

Should they keep on using this word? The answer was yes. To ranch owners, a dude was simply someone who came out West to enjoy the activities they offered: horseback riding, fishing, camping, hunting, swimming, evening entertainments in beautiful lodges, even helping wrangle the livestock. And their guests took pride in being called dudes.

So, with a unanimous vote, they adopted the name the group still has today: The Dude Ranchers’ Association.

The “Backed by Northern Pacific” phrase in this newspaper headline meant that railway lines were doing everything they could to keep the dude business going. Hundreds of people took the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific, the Burlington Northern, and other lines to get to ranches near big cities, national parks, and remote wilderness areas. It was easier than ever to take a dude ranch vacation.

But as the 1920s wore on, more people were buying cars and taking to the road on their own. And sometimes they bypassed the dude ranches. The railroads not only helped the Dude Ranchers’ Association get started, they promoted ranches with beautifully designed brochures and pamphlets.

Look at all that denim!

DRA members knew that dudes would make repeat visits, and tell their friends about what a great time they had, if they had an authentic Western experience. To help this along, the DRA debuted its own magazine in 1932, called The Dude Rancher.

It was full of useful advice and is a lot of fun to read today. My favorite column was called House Management. It was all about the life of what some people called “the dude ranch wife,” but was really the dude ranch co-owner. From the beginning, dude ranching was a true partnership between married couples, and was also the kind of business many women ran on their own (that’s a story for another day).

For 95 years, The Dude Ranchers’ Association has helped ranches adapt to world events and cultural shifts: Depression, two world wars, changes in the way the West showed up on movie and TV screens, even how people eat.

So, Happy Birthday DRA! Keep up the dude work.

Check out the Dude Ranchers’ Association website: https://duderanch.org/

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