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Dude ranches keep western culture alive

The Tombstone Monumental Guest Ranch depicts the setting of an old western town in 1881. (Photograph by Jake Cavanah/Arizona Sonora News Service)

The Tombstone Monumental Guest Ranch depicts the setting of an old western town in 1881. (Photograph by Jake Cavanah/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Lois Wordon hated horses.

Then she spent some time at a dude ranch. Now, she and her husband, Keith, live on a ranch with four horses in Ontario, Canada, and horseback riding is her favorite part of dude ranches.

“I love the colors, I love the sun shining everyday,” she said. “I love the blue, blue sky. I love being able to see all those stars. I love the relaxed attitude of everybody, just the natural things in life.”

The Wardons were visiting Tucson’s White Stallion Ranch, a member of the Dude Ranch Association.

The DRA has capitalized on the natural beauty of the west and the draw of the ranch to become a strong economic industry.

The association, which owns seven out of the 12 ranches in Arizona, was formed in 1926 to keep the Western culture alive. An example of this is the Tombstone Monumental Guest Ranch.

The owner of the OldWestMagazine.com, Gary S. McLelland, is one of those guests at Arizona ranches. He fell in love with the Western culture in the 1950s through television icons like John Wayne.

He always wanted to experience life in the 1800s and staying at dude ranches was his way of feeling like he was there.

“Just the attraction of actually being back in the 1800s.” said McLelland, “I just want to be there.”

McLelland never had interest in horseback riding and still isn’t to this day, but that doesn’t affect his love of the culture.

“I wasn’t a big horseback rider. I was just fascinated by anything old West,” he said.

The Tombstone Monumental Guest Ranch, located three miles outside of one of the world’s most notable western towns in Tombstone, is on over 270 acres of land where the cowboys and Apache Indians ventured in the 1800s. 

Tombstone Monumental Guest Ranch, built in October 2009, is a new dude ranch that exemplifies the relevance of Western culture.

A lot of the ranch’s guests are from Germany and other parts of Europe, which is due to the old owners.

“We have a large German clientele. The ranch used to be owned by a German investment group and that’s where they did most of their advertising,” said Michelle DeSplinter, who works in guest services. 

The marketing in Europe continues to pay off, which is evident by the repeat customers.

“We have had some [European customers] I’ve met more than once, and I’ve only been here a couple years,” said DeSplinter. 

On average, the DRA hosts 110,000 guests across the country, and Arizona ranches account for close to 30 percent of these with 30,000 guests per season, which for the most part includes winter, spring, and fall, according to Hodson.

Arizona’s high contribution to DRA’s total guests is partly attributed to three of the association’s biggest ranches are in the state: Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg, and the White Stallion Ranch.

Others guests go to the ranch for a retreat. Teddy and Katie Tiger, a couple from Boston, have been visiting dude ranches for over a decade and have fallen in love with the relaxing feel.

Teddy described the ranches as being, “important” to them, and Katie said they’re “magical.”

“It’s peace and rest and change of venue,” which differs from her day-to-day job in Harvard University’s presidents office and Teddy’s investment advisor duties.

Another aspect they love about the culture is the long-lasting relationships they form with people they meet at the ranches.

“We’ve made a lot of friends [at dude ranches] that we’ve seen after the fact,” said Katie. At one of the ranches they visited, they met people from London who they’ve seen “three to four times” since they originally met.

The Tiger and Wordon couples are two groups of customers that contribute to the high repeat business rate, which is 62 percent according to a Dude Ranchers’ Association fall survey, but Colleen Hodson, the association’s executive director, said that some ranches have an even higher rate.

Along with Arizona, the DRA has ranches in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.

The Tigers have stayed at various dude ranches across the nation, but the first ranch they vacationed at was the Circle Z Ranch in Patagonia, Ariz., where they got hooked.

“You get here, all your cares and woes have been left behind,” Teddy said. “We can be as inactive or active as we want to be, and it’s all good here. There’s no reason to leave here when you’re here.”

Jake Cavanah is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at jacobcavanah@email.arizona.edu.