How Dude Ranches Work

History of the Dude Ranch

The first dude ranch can be traced back the 19th century. Following the Civil War cattle bo­om of the 1880s, Howard Eaton established the Custer Trail Ranch in the Dakota Badlands. Joined soon after by his brothers and a friend, Eaton wrote East to spread the word about the ranch.

Interestingly, the dude ranch was popularized primarily by presidential rough rider Theodore Roosevelt. After reading one of Eaton's letters in a New York magazine, the pre-presidential Roosevelt, who was about to stage a failed mayoral campaign in New York, became intrigued by the idea, packed up his things and headed to the Dakota Badlands. He spent his time hunting, fishing and riding, and let his friends back East know that the ranch had earned his seal of approval. He bought the nearby Maltese Cross Ranch, and soon after, hosted visitors.

In the beginning, the guests weren't exactly providing lucrative business. In fact, they were relying on the generosity of their hosts. Guests began to offer pay for room and board, but that didn't line up with the Eatons' Western hospitality. However, after they realized they might turn a profit, the family soon changed their minds, and Bert Rumsey of Buffalo, N.Y., became the first paying visitor to sign the Custer Trail Ranch guest book [source: Dude Ranch History]. The "dudes" had arrived.

The Eatons began charging an all-inclusive $10 fee per week for each guest. They crafted an experience for their visitors that included ranch chores, such as roping, cattle drives, rounding up stray cows and riding. These activities were designed to improve the mental and physical health of the city folk who visited. And this focus became the trademark of all dude ranches.

As the railroad expanded at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the dude ranch continued to gain popularity. Additionally, the struggling cattle industry in the 1920s made cash-strapped ranchers embrace the dude ranch as a new opportunity to increase revenue.

The dude ranch continued to flourish and cropped up throughout the American West. Dude ranches also have been established in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. On the next page, we'll take a look at dude ranch activities.