Dude ranches go to school

Dude ranching’s first decades were seat-of-the-pants operations. Individual ranches did their own thing or heard about something that worked at another place a few mountain ranges away and gave that a try.

In 1926, a group of Montana and Wyoming ranchers got together and founded the Dude Ranchers’ Association, to organize the growing list of ranches and to help them get on a business footing. Thanks to their efforts, dude ranching was so well known by the early 1930s that the University of Wyoming in Laramie began to offer a Bachelor of Science degree in recreational ranching.

The program began in the fall of 1934 and was based out of the College of Agriculture, which makes sense. Anyone who wanted to work on or run a dude ranch had to understand everything about livestock, cultivating crops for their feed and use the proper machinery, and be familiar with the local plants and animals (if for no other reason than to show them off to the dudes). Students had to take other classes to get their degree, too: bookkeeping, food purchasing, institutional-level cooking, and staff management. The Dude Ranchers’ Association loved the idea.

There weren’t a lot of students in this program, but they were enthusiastic. The class of 1936 formed a Dude Ranch Club on campus, and the university offered the degree until 1942. World War II pulled young men out of classes and off of dude ranches and into the military, and many young women went into factory jobs.

But dude ranches were still enough of a novelty to be the butt of jokes now and then. And the story about a degree in recreational ranching sent one reporter for the Helena, Montana Independent-Record off the rails.

In the November 9, 1935 issue, the unnamed writer took the idea to hilarious extremes. He said that Montanans should not let Wyoming get the jump on them.

“We have more and greater dude ranches than Wyoming. Our State College at Bozeman would be the place to organize courses, not only in dude ranching, but in the domestic science of hot-dog serving; the care and feeding of tourists; camp fire building; and packing and unpacking the pack. And let us not stop at bachelor degrees, either. Let us have doctors of tourist handling and masters of the outdoor arts. Let us educate visitors not to accept a hamburger unless the cook can show a diploma.”

Dude ranches got the last laugh on this subject, though. For nearly forty years, the Dude Ranch Foundation has been offering scholarships to students in a variety of degree programs, to help them forge careers in equine and livestock management, hospitality, and others which support dude ranching.

I’ll bet all of them know how to cook a hamburger.

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