Magazine article Sunset

100 Years of Saddled Dudes

Magazine article Sunset

100 Years of Saddled Dudes

Article excerpt

Around 6 you hear them - horses galloping from the upper pasture and splashing across Wolf Creek, wranglers pushing them on. Mornings have begun this way for nearly a century at Eatons' Ranch, the oldest dude ranch in the world. That may seem a frivolous claim to fame, but it is not. There is the West that occupies the map, and the West that occupies the imagination. Eatons' belongs in both.

The ranch lies at the base of Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains, but its story begins in Dakota Territory, where in 1879 a young Pennsylvanian named Howard Eaton started raising cattle. When blizzards and collapsing cattle prices pushed the ranch to bankruptcy, Eaton devised a peculiar salvation. He had already hosted Eastern friends who wanted to play cowboy. One of these guests offered to pay for the privilege. The dude ranch was born.

Howard Eaton moved his operation to Wyoming in 1904 to give guests easier access to high-mountain scenery. That event looms large in the history of Eatons', which has otherwise changed so little. When you ask Nancy Ferguson - Howard Eaton's grandniece and the doyenne of the two dozen Eaton descendants who work the ranch today - whether Eatons' is much different from what it was when she was a girl, she has to think. "We have a few new cabins. But that's about it. We try not to do anything new and fancy. Keep it plain."

Running a place like Eatons' is like performing a good rope trick - it looks easy, but it isn't. The ranch has 7,000 acres, 51 cabins, eight wranglers, and 200 horses. The last figure may be the most important because while other ranches have gone "fancy" with golf courses and aromatherapy weekends, Eatons' still lives by and for the horse.

The matching of dude to horse is, in fact, the key event of any week-long Eatons' stay, and the wranglers perform it like seasoned vaudevillians.

You, the dude, venture to the stables and ask for a saddle.

"We used to have saddles around here," the wrangler drawls. He glances at the tack room, a veritable Saddles "R" Us.

You, the dude, confide that you are not an experienced rider.

"Your first test," the wrangler says, "is to ride that horse down there." You look to where the wrangler points. A wooden horse. You climb on and attempt confidence while the saddle is fitted. Then before you can work up a good panic attack, you are pushed onto a real horse, which, it turns out, is perfectly matched to your riding ability, or lack thereof.

The days lope by. …

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