The Mystery Writer and the First Dude Rancher

Journalist and author Mary Roberts Rinehart was working in her Pittsburg office in the early summer of 1915 when a man she’d never seen before knocked on the door. He was middle-aged and tanned, with a cheerful, open face. His name was Howard Eaton, and although he was also a Pittsburg native, he now lived in Wolf, Wyoming, in the Bighorn mountains. He and his brothers ran a place out there called Eatons’.

Howard had moved to Medora, North Dakota in 1879 and, with a partner, began to hunt and sell meat to the men building the Northern Pacific Railway, calling their business the Custer Trail Ranch. By 1882 Howard’s two brothers, Alden and Willis, had joined him and they formed the Custer Trail Cattle Company.

Like other ranchers, they often hosted hunters and explorers who came out to see the West and experience cowboy life. The Eaton brothers offered food and lodging as a courtesy, but it didn’t take long to realize that their generosity was eating into their cattle profits. So, later in 1882 they bought a guest book and started charging men to stay at their place. Nobody minded, and the price was right: $10 a week. By 1899 Eatons’ had been dubbed a dude ranch: the first of its kind.

Their concept was so popular that in 1903 the brothers sold the ranch in Medora and bought property and buildings in Wolf, Wyoming, near Sheridan. In 1904 they opened Eatons’ which, from the first day, was a full-time dude ranch.

Howard was also the most respected hunting and packing guide in the Rocky Mountain West. When he came to Pittsburg on that summer day, he was in town to organize a pack trip into newly-opened Glacier National Park in July.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was a renowned writer of clever mystery novels and plays, and had just returned from Europe, where she had worked as correspondent in the early years of World War I. Howard dropped in on the famous author to ask if she and her husband would join the Glacier trip. He was a savvy businessman and knew that having a big name along would be good publicity, especially since everyone would gather at Eatons’ dude ranch before heading out.

Mary’s husband, Dr. Stanley Rinehart, thought this was a great idea. His wife was exhausted, still suffering from the effects of what she’d seen in Europe, and working night and day on her writing. Mary was already a superb horsewoman, and an outdoor trip on horseback was probably just what she needed. So, she reluctantly agreed to come along. She left for Eatons’ by herself, and her husband and three sons planned to follow her later.

Howard was a stern trail guide for the pack trip’s forty-two participants. One of them was famed western artist Charles Russell, the other celebrity along for the ride. After the first few days getting used to hours of riding and sleeping rough, Mary began to thrive. She took note of everything she saw, both with her pen and her camera.

She claimed that the camp food also made her stronger. For breakfast the riders ate bacon, eggs, pancakes with molasses, and black coffee. Lunch was more coffee and thick sandwiches. Dinner was usually fried beef and potatoes with…coffee.

Mary’s enjoyment of the trip was cut short when a ranger showed up in camp with a telegram. Her husband Stanley was in the hospital after an emergency operation for appendicitis, a dangerous condition in 1915. She gathered her belongings and followed the ranger at a gallop back down the mountain and caught the next train for home (her husband recovered).

Despite having to leave early, this trip changed her life, and Mary and Howard became lifelong friends.

In 1916 Mary published Through Glacier Park: Seeing America First With Howard Eaton. More than just a travelogue, the book is a sometimes-hilarious celebration of wandering the unspoiled West, which had entranced her from the very first day.

Mary and her family started taking regular vacations at Eatons’ dude ranch, where they would spend weeks at a time. It didn’t take long for her to get onto a first-name basis with the hands. She took these deeply-loved days and worked them into another travel book called The Out Trail, which she published in 1923. It’s a multi-chapter description of the experiences on her many travels around the U.S. and Mexico. One chapter is called “The Dude Ranch,” and is all about Eatons’ and Howard Eaton himself. If you want to know what life was like on a dude ranch in the early 1920s, this is the book for you.

Mary dedicated The Out Trail to Howard Eaton, who had died of peritonitis in a Sheridan, Wyoming hospital in April of 1922. She was deeply shocked by his death, and she spoke publicly about the loss of her friend. So did Charles Russell, and newspapers across the country also carried Howard’s obituary. He would probably have appreciated the headline in his hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Daily Post: “Howard Eaton Missed ‘Dying With Boots On.’” After a funeral was held in Sheridan, his body was returned to Pittsburgh and cremated.

Throughout the 1920s Mary continued to write books and articles about dude ranching. The rest of her career was devoted to works of mystery and romance, but the West she saw with Howard Eaton enriched her life forever. This quote from Through Glacier Park says it all.

“Throw off the impedimenta of civilization, the telephones, the silly conventions, the lies that pass for truth. Go out to the West.”

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