As a young America spread further and further West, a new kind of tourism spread with it. Known as the “dude ranch,” these mashups of ranching and tourism really got started in the late 1800s following the Battle of Little Big Horn, which ended an era of brutal bloodshed on the Plains. With the Indian wars concluded, the railroads were able to rapidly expand West, bringing more settlers as well as tourist. The chance to experience life in the wide open spaces of Western ranches was also boosted by the enthusiasm of none other than US President Teddy Roosevelt, who bought his own slice of heaven, the Maltese Cross Ranch.
Roosevelt’s ranch was actually located near the very first dude ranch in the US and possibly the world, the Custer Trail Ranch in the Dakota Badlands near Medora, North Dakota. Brothers Howard, Willis, and Alden Eaton established their horse and cattle ranch in 1879. The Eatons named their operation the Custer Trail Ranch because General George Armstrong Custer camped near the ranch’s Davis Creek on the way to the Little Bighorn.
Apparently, when the Eatons first arrived in the Badlands, the land was not surveyed and they simply moved into abandoned log cabins in the area. The Eatons soon added more buildings and developed it into a thriving cattle ranch. They also began sending letters about their Western adventures to family and friends back East. Soon, those family and friends started visiting with some staying for weeks or even months at a time, thrilled to be able to experience life on a real-life ranch.
At some point, one of the guests recognized what a massive expense these long visits were for the Eaton brothers and suggested they start charging for room and board. That way, “folks can stay as long as they like.” From all accounts, the Eatons were at first resistant to the idea as it went against the concept of “western hospitality.”
Everything changed in 1886 after a devastating wildfire and an extremely harsh winter that severely trimmed the size of the Eatons’ cattle herd. As they looked to tighten up the books, they realized that they had provided some 2,200 free meals the previous year. The Eatons then decided they could charge guests $10 a week.
The first recorded paying guest, or “dude”, was Bert Rumsey, of Buffalo, NY, in 1883. The term “dude” at the time was what Western cattle ranchers called city slickers. Apparently, the residents in and around the Medora area began calling Custer Trail the “dude ranch,” the Eatons embraced it, and the name stuck.
In 1884, Teddy Roosevelt would sign his name in the Custer Trail Ranch guestbook, having been turned on to the idea after one of the Eatons’ letters was published in a New York newspaper. It was just one of several spots Roosevelt visited during his trip to the area, where he spent his time hunting, fishing, and riding, and eventually bought his own ranch.
Around 1903, as rangeland was fast disappearing in the Badlands, the Eatons “pulled up stakes” in North Dakota and moved the operation near Sheridan, Wyoming, at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains on Wolf Creek. By 1917, Eatons’ Ranch covered 7,000 acres, ran 500 horses and several hundred head of cattle. Their guest capacity reached 125 – the largest dude ranch in the country. The ranch, now known as Eatons Ranch, is still running today, operated by the fourth and fifth generations of the Eaton family. You can learn more about Eatons Ranch HERE. They also have a stunning drone video tour of the ranch HERE.