The American West was built on a sense of adventure. So, naturally, adventure-seeking tourists started heading out from the East Coast for an exciting experience in the unspoiled wilderness – and dude ranching was born.
Russell True, a lifelong dude rancher from Arizona, was approached about documenting this historic trend in his first book for Arcadia Publishing, “Dude Ranching in Arizona,” which debuted in 2016. But as a member (and two-time president) of the Dude Ranchers’ Association, headquartered in Cody, he and his fellow members realized there really ought to be a similar book for Wyoming.
He approached his old publisher and landed the job of cowriting “Dude Ranching in Wyoming” with dude ranch fan-turned-owner Christine Holden. The book came out July 13.
“I’m just a dude ranch fanatic; it’s all I’ve ever done,” True said by phone from Arizona. “I’ve been doing it for 39 straight years, so I get a kick out of this stuff.”
True’s father is from Wyoming, and all of his close ranching friends live there, Montana or Canada, so he felt he had the necessary background knowledge to pull the project off. It took a great deal of digging online for archival photos and detailed historical accounts, but he enjoyed the research. Being so entrenched in the dude ranching community, it was as if he was learning more about his own personal history in the process.
Arcadia Publishing has a specific formula for its Images of America book series, which Russell said made writing his first book much easier. Once he knew the particular number of pages, style and format he needed to use, he was able to fill in the pieces with all his research. The imagery was one of the biggest challenges, he said, because the piece is essentially a historic photo book that needed to have proper citations and enough photographs to fill the page count.
“You should be a good journalist (writing this) if nothing else, and collect great photos that hopefully portray the area and era they’re from,” True said.
He “frustrated the heck” out of his editors because of having to push the deadline back, True said with a laugh, but it was such a passion project that he was determined to make it work.
This is a history that Americans rarely learn, he believes, so it was crucial to get it right and pay tribute to the Western tradition that has defined his livelihood.
“I believe that Americans and people from other countries that are interested in America are fascinated with the West, and there have even been studies that support this,” he said.
“They don’t have the West, the cowboys and the range wars … the West is important and symbolizes America in many ways.”
True added that it’s not uncommon for people to dismiss dude ranches and say they’re not real, so he wanted to tell the stories that prove these pioneers went through a great deal to attract wealthy New Yorkers and other Easterners, which wasn’t easy to do in the 1890s when there was no air travel.
Perhaps the most important example is the Eatons, who operated the first dude ranch in Wyoming and attracted Teddy Roosevelt to the West by penning a love letter for their region that the former president read in the New York Times.
Dude ranching would not exist, True argues in the book, without Roosevelt. And he hopes connecting this history back to famous figures such as the president will help legitimize the story for readers.
“I think any person who picks up the book is going to be surprised by how authentic and real these ranches and ranchers were,” True said. “This isn’t some kind of hokey-dokey Disney out in the Wyoming wild, it’s real people doing real ranching, taking in guests and sharing their unique country … By no means is this a comprehensive scholarly book, it’s not intended to be, (but) I told the story, and, I guess, made a permanent record of at least part of what Wyoming’s dude ranching was all about.”