Dude, I want to be a cowboy.
Perhaps more than almost any other fantasy (if you disregard some of my racier ones) as Willie Nelson said, “I grew up dreaming of being a cowboy, and loving the cowboy ways.” It has always been simmering in the background. Growing up in the West, that is probably no surprise. But obviously, I am not alone.
“A famous early dude was Theodore Roosevelt. After World War I the popularity of dude ranches increased enormously and during the 20s and 30s they were the main tourist attraction in the Rocky Mountain area. Writers like Owen Wister, Zane Grey and Mary O’Hara and painters like Remington and Russell brought the fabulous romance of cowboy life on an open frontier to millions throughout the world. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was an unprecedented success in Europe and the East,” according to Bayard Fox, who established “The Bitteroot” ranch in Wyoming in 1972.
“Perhaps no other era in recent times has provided such picturesque color unless it is the East Africa of Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa), Beryl Markham (West with the Night) and Earnest Hemingway during much the same period. Two people who saw both cultures and wrote about them were Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt though Roosevelt especially concentrated heavily on the hunting aspects of his long trip to Kenya.”
From The Dude Ranchers' Association based in Cody, Wyoming:
“Dude ranching did not begin at a defined time. It evolved slowly from several divergent sources in different locales. The first organizational gathering of these independent- minded pioneers occurred in Bozeman, Montana in September of 1926 at the urging of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The rail road, looking for an additional source of revenue and a means to combat the new method of travel, the automobile, saw the dude ranches of the area as natural partners in the burgeoning tourism industry of the West. This meeting of ranchers from the Yellowstone area led to the formation of The Dude Ranchers' Association,” according to the organization’s website.
“The Association's original membership of thirty-five ranches from the Yellowstone area has now grown to 100-plus member ranches in 12 western states and two Canadian provinces. In spite of this growth, the Association today remains dedicated to preserving the beauty, natural resources, and the original western ranch experiences that attracted the first visitors.”
Within this framework, the association regulates standards, and promotes dude ranch vacations. The Dude Ranchers' Association is a diverse group, composed of cattle ranches who accept paying guests and mountain top lodges that offer a ranch atmosphere.
“The formation of lasting bonds and memories still brings families back to ranches generation after generation. This is truly a living testimony to the timelessness of the values and standards of the original dude ranchers. Today, as it did over a century ago, the western dude ranch experience offers relief for both the body and spirit of those seeking refuge from the pressures and routine of modern life.”
So while recently sifting through old photos in Denver Public Library’s historic archive, I was fascinated by shots of Skelton Ranch early in the last century.
Erik Swab, a former computer programmer turned historical researcher, apparently had a similar experience. Although Swab was first directed to the early ranch in Teller County by the United States Forest Service, his research for them, and his interest in hiking in the Pikes Peak area, according to a March story by Dave Phillips in the Colorado Springs Gazette.
“When I first started asking about this place, there were so many rumors: It was a Japanese internment camp or a brothel or other things,” he is quoted in Phillips story.
In fact, he said, it was a dude ranch — one of the first in the state. It was many things over the years, including a resort that courted the moneyed class, and a place where locals attended community dances and suppers, according to the account.
The Skelton Mountain Ranch apparently operated from 1905 to 1916 and was situated three and half miles west of Woodland Park, with 400 acres there, and an additional 1,140 acres near Divide, according to Swab’s research.
“William Skelton was born in Kentucky in 1864 and married Lizzie Butler in 1885. They moved to Denver in 1898, where Skelton was a member of a law firm and briefly held the position of Judge. The couple left Denver in 1906 to reside in Woodland Park at the ranch,” writes David Martinek in Pikes Peak Country, citing Swab’s research.
“The resort ranch was famous. It had 30 log guest cabins, a 10-room house and log dining house, a large three-level barn, and a 104-foot long chicken house and an assembly hall with a large stone chimney. The promotional literature claimed that each cabin had indoor plumbing, but the reality was that there were surely several outdoor privies, instead. The ranch could accommodate up to 250 people at $15/week. And they only accepted “refined people as guests,’” writes Martinek.
According to Swab’s research, a fire in 1908 destroyed several buildings and may have cut short its life as a dude ranch. It was sold to a St. Louis shoe company executive named F.A. Sudholts, in 1916, and was to focus mostly on raising stock, but was largely vacant after that until the 1940s.
View of riders on base of Balanced Rock at Skelton Mountain Ranch. Oats raised without irrigation, Skelton Mountain Ranch, Woodland Park, Colo. Photographed by Louis Charles McClure, between 1900 and 1919. L.C. McClure Collection, Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library.