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Dude Ranching in Yellowstone Country: Larry Larom and Valley Ranch, 1915-1969

Author(s):Kensel, W. Hudson
Reviewer(s):Weiss, Thomas

Published by EH.NET (July 2011)

W. Hudson Kensel, Dude Ranching in Yellowstone Country: Larry Larom and Valley Ranch, 1915-1969. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.? 240 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-87062-384-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Thomas Weiss, Department of Economics, University of Kansas (emeritus).

This is the complete and richly detailed history of Larry Larom and his dude ranch in Wyoming.? The author, professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno, grew up in the vicinity of Larom?s ranch and has fond memories of his summers in that area.? This then is not only a biography, but a labor of love for times past.

While the story touches on the history of dude ranching generally, it is primarily a biography of Larom, who gave up his life as a New York socialite to live in the west and run a dude ranch.? The author takes us from what he labels the infancy of dude ranching and Larom?s purchase of Valley Ranch in 1915 up through the sale of the ranch to Oakleigh Thorne in 1969.? He was successful enough that the ranch remained in business for 54 years under his guidance, and survived the Depression and World War II.?? He became less interested in running the organization after World War II and especially by the 1960s, in part because of his advancing age and health problems.? But perhaps also because the dude ranch industry in Wyoming struggled when transportation to and within Wyoming was improved.? Instead of increasing the demand for dude ranch vacations as expected, the improvements appeared, at least to Larom, to have shortened the length of the stays.? Moreover, Larom bemoaned the change in the interests of teenage boys, who by the 1960s were not as interested in fishing and scenery and were less easily disciplined.

The long-time success of the ranch was due to a number of factors.? Kensel argues success was due primarily to Larom?s personable nature, which made him a good host to the wealthy easterners who made the trek west and stayed for months at a time.? He also benefitted from his connections to wealthy easterners and perhaps especially to Winthrop Brooks, heir to the Brooks Brother fortune and his partner in the dude ranch for the first decade.? He was an astute enough businessman to take advantage of opportunities, such as having Yellowstone National Park as a resource to draw upon to entertain his guests, and to secure a contract to provide horses for the U.S. Army?s Remount program leading up to World War II.? And through his public service he made connections through which he lobbied for things that appeared to be of value to dude ranchers, such as road improvements, electrification, and construction of an airport in nearby Cody.? As it turns out, in the long term these did not all work to the advantage of dude ranches.

In a sense, he did not actually give up his life as a socialite.? Indeed, ?exclusivity? was his goal for the ranch.? He wanted only the finest of clientele, and did not want them to have to mingle with the hoi polloi and other undesirable types who were attracted by campgrounds in the national park.? Indeed, he lobbied against the establishment of campgrounds in the parks, did not want Jewish guests, and opposed Wyoming?s Civil Rights Act of 1957.

It seems fairly certain that the exclusivity of the clientele and Larom?s personality explain some of the attraction of a vacation on a dude ranch.? It was after all a long arduous journey to reach the ranch, with the last stretch of 45 miles from Cody, Wyoming being covered by horse-drawn wagons.? And it was not cheap.? In the 1930s the round trip rail fare to Cody ran around $100 from New York and half that from Chicago, while in the first year of operation the rates for staying at the ranch were $3 a day or $90 a month, the rates being charged at other dude ranches in the area. Larom raised the rates to $5 a day and $100 a month in the following year, because he did not want to attract the sorts of people who were vacationing at other dude ranches in the area.? Those rates did cover all expenses of life on the ranch, which consisted of riding, usually twice a day, tennis, swimming, bridge, occasional entertainment, and a dance on Saturday evenings.

Not satisfied with catering to only adult dudes, Larom started pack trips for boys in 1920 and girls in 1922 ? and they continued for about 20 years.? For whatever reason, the trips appear to have been more popular with girls than boys ? the largest trip in 1923 had 79 girls and 56 boys ? perhaps because they had an opportunity to shop for authentic western style clothing.? Participation declined during the Depression and again just before World War II, but continued until the early 1960s.? The success of the pack trips led Larom to start a summer school for boys in 1922.? After some initial success the school closed in 1934 with a few boys returning to the ranch to be tutored until 1937.? The motivation for both the pack trips and the school was in part to provide opportunity for eastern youths to experience a wholesome outdoors environment and life style, but no doubt also served to develop a clientele for the future.?

The book provides a plethora of other information about Larom and the ranch, some well worth noting; some not, such as the ranch?s phone number ? 7F06.? Among the abundance of other detail one learns that Larom was instrumental in the origin and development of the Cody Stampede, which is still held annually.? Perhaps more important than his legacy as dude rancher was his work to preserve the wilderness, and the author devotes a chapter on ?Wildlife and Wilderness? to this aspect of his career.? Some of that work was, of course, self-serving ? to make sure his guests could catch fish and see bison and elk ? but he was very active in these matters more generally, including arguing on behalf of preserving King?s Canyon in California.

While the author provides abundant detail about Larom, he comes up short on the sort of information that would be of interest to economic historians.? It is much more a biography of Larom than the history of the ranch and its place in the economy.? Among the book?s shortcomings in this regard are the following.? It is never made clear how much success the ranch or the industry had.? Kensel says repeatedly that the ranch was successful, but little evidence is presented to support it, and that small amount is scattered throughout the book.? For example, he describes the Valley Ranch as the premier ranch in the 1920s (p.70) and cites Larom?s prediction that with the opening of the school for boys in 1922 the gross receipts would increase from $40,000 to $75,000 per year (p. 129).? But he does not provide evidence about the actual receipts for those years or any others.? Nor does he provide a time series on the number of dudes who made the trek to Wyoming over the years. He cites an occasional statistic, such as there were 200 dudes at the peak in the 1920s, but provides no evidence for other years.? He does indicate that there were over 16,000 names in the ranch?s visitor logs, covering 54 years ? or roughly 300 per year.? It is not clear whether the log included everyone?s name or just the head of household.? Assuming the latter, then perhaps there were 1,500 people per year.? Whether 300 or 1500, this is a story about a fairly small business enterprise, albeit one that lasted for quite some time, and may have had influence beyond its market niche.

Nor does he provide much information about the history and success of any of the other ranches in the county, state or region.? I would have liked to see the story broadened to put Larom?s ranch in perspective relative to the ranches in Cody County, and the county?s ranches put in the broader perspective of the state or regional dude ranching industry.? How many other dude ranches were there in Wyoming?? How large was Valley Ranch compared to others in the industry?? How did the performance of Valley Ranch compare to the competition and what factors might have accounted for the difference in performance?? Did Valley Ranch succeed longer than others or did it just go along with the general trends for the industry?? The tone of the book certainly suggests that Larom had outperformed the rest of the industry, but some systematic evidence would have been nice to see.

Kensel argues as well that the dude ranches became big business in the 1920s, or at least big enough that they came into conflict with sheep and cattle ranchers, and were seen as depriving ranchers of grazing land and not paying their fair share of taxes.? But again, there is little evidence of how big they became, either individually or in the aggregate.? In a complaint about the dude ranches, one stock grower claimed in 1948 that there were only 51 dude ranches registered in Wyoming. The number may have been higher when the industry was at its peak in the 1920s, but still the size seems smaller than suggested by this biography.? On the other hand, one bit of evidence suggests they were more numerous, or that they had political clout. In 1935 the University of Wyoming offered a four-year degree program in Dude Wrangling.? Who knew?

On a topic of interest to me, the role of tourism in the county and state?s economy, Larom and others saw dude ranch tourism as providing a boost to the economy of Cody County in the 1920s when farmers and ranchers were struggling.? But again no evidence is provided to indicate the extent of depression or recession in the rural agricultural areas or on the relative importance of tourism over the years.? And Kensel does not address questions such as whether dude ranching was only a stop-gap measure in the 1920s or had a long term effect on the state?s economic structure.?

In an earlier work I argued that the growth of tourism in America cannot be accounted for by the increase in travel to the well-known destinations, such as Niagara Falls and the National Parks.? The growth must have occurred at a growing number of lesser known places, which Dona Brown labeled an ?army of resorts.?? She was writing about New England, but elsewhere similar developments must have taken place and this book serves nicely to highlight what some of those lesser known places were. Dude ranches would clearly pass muster and serve in the region?s army of resorts.? Now we need to know whether dude ranches comprised a battalion, a brigade or a division.

In summary, while most economic historians will find it wanting, the book and its treasure trove of archival information will appeal to some, such as those who have spent time on a dude ranch, historians of the west, some business historians, and other dudes and dudettes.?

Thomas Weiss is professor emeritus of Economics at the University of Kansas.? His most recent publication is ?The American Invasion of Europe: The Long Term Rise in Overseas Travel, 1820-2000,? co-authored with Brandon Dupont, Western Washington University and Alka Gandhi, University of Maryland.? Economic History Review, forthcoming
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Subject(s):Business History
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII