Sunday 18 February 2024

Five minute history - the American dude ranch by Lynn Downey


Five minute history - the American dude ranch 

By Lynn Downey

I’ve been fascinated by the American dude ranch for years. Since its inception in the 1880s, the dude ranch has always been a vacation destination for men and women, mostly from the eastern states, who want to experience the West and the cowboy lifestyle.  

In the early days, the experience was rustic and centered around riding and camping. Today, you can ride an electric bike into the desert, as well as take a trail trek on a horse through the mountains. But no matter how modern the activities, the dude ranch still offers guests a touch of cowboy spirit. 

My interest in this buckaroo getaway began when I was working as the historian and archivist for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco. The company made clothing specifically for people to wear at dude ranches in the 1930s and 1940s, and that was so interesting to me. I began to research the history of dude ranching and collect memorabilia. (I’m not obsessed or anything, but I have about one hundred pieces of ephemera in my house: post cards, brochures, photos, pamphlets, magazines, ads.).

Anyway, in 2012, I starting thinking about writing my first novel and I decided to set it on a dude ranch. In addition, I wanted the time period to be the 1950s, because that was one of the high points of dude ranching’s popularity, and I could have fun with what people wore.

It took me a while to write the book, because I was still working full time. In 2014 I formed my own archival/consulting business, which gave me more hours to write, but I had some nonfiction books that needed to come out first. One of them was a cultural history of the dude ranch, American Dude Ranch: A Touch of the Cowboy and the Thrill of the West. Doing the research for this book helped me envision what I wanted my fictional ranch to look like.

Dudes Rush In, that first novel, came out in 2020, and the sequel, Dude or Die, was released last year. The books are set in 1952 and 1954, respectively, and my main characters are women. They are sisters-in-law, but have different back stories and ways of dressing. As well as attitudes toward denim.

Levi Strauss & Co. created the first blue jean for women in 1934, called Lady Levi’s. They were designed for women to wear on dude ranches, because in those days – and in fact all the way through to the 1960s – it was just not acceptable for a woman to wear jeans. At least in public. You’d never see the equivalent of Martha Stewart wearing jeans in Connecticut in 1954.

But on a dude ranch, they were the perfect product, and nobody looked down on a woman who jumped onto a horse wearing denim. In fact, ranchers told prospective guests to make sure to bring jeans with them. Not only that, the women who owned or co-owned dude ranches wore jeans themselves. They were the right garment for the kind of work they had to do to keep ranches going.  

My main character, Phoebe Kelley, is from San Francisco and comes out to Tribulation, Arizona to help her late husband’s sister Mary and her husband Sam run their H Double Bar dude ranch. Back home, Phoebe wears dresses, gloves, and a hat when she goes out. She has a little trouble showing up to dinner at the dude ranch wearing jeans and a western shirt, but Mary assures her it’s the right way to dress (and that’s what the guests wear, too). 

Mary, who was raised on a ranch in Arizona, dresses in stylish western wear: side zip, slim denim pants, feminine western shirts, and boots (scuffed but still trendy). She also loves big earrings and bracelets which are always coordinated with her other clothes. Although she looks like she could be on the cover of a fashion magazine, her clothes never keep her from saddling a horse or stacking some hay, should the occasion arise. 

Both Phoebe and Mary sometimes wear a western dress from the era. It was known as a “squaw dress,” which is a thoroughly unacceptable name today, of course. It was called that because the style was based on clothing worn by indigenous women in the Southwest. It was also sometimes called a patio dress, because lots of suburban women adopted it in the 1950s to wear at backyard parties. This is the name I use in my books.

An important character in Dude or Die is Thelma Powell, who runs the Desert Grande guest ranch. (A guest ranch is a fancier dude ranch.) Powell seems determined to put all of Tribulation’s other ranches out of business, especially the H Double Bar. Mary, Sam, and Phoebe go to an Open House that Thelma throws when the ranch opens, and readers get a sense of her personality by the way she dresses: tight black western slacks with pearl snaps on the pockets, tucked into black Acme boots, paired with a silver satin shirt with black piping and an embroidered yoke. That was taking western wear to a high level. She even outshone Mary.

Writing historical fiction about the West opens up so many possibilities: for setting, language, interesting characters and, for my purposes, clothes. My work for Levi Strauss & Co., and my own collection of vintage clothing and jewelry (which I wear regularly), gives me the chance to be self-indulgent with my own interests when I write my novels. But I am also true to history, because the clothes we wear – and wore – reveal our characters in a way that is both fun and fascinating.  

Levi’s historical images courtesy Levi Strauss & Co. 

Dude or Die
By Lynn Downey

Publication Date: October 15, 2023
Publisher: Pronghorn Press
Page Length: 328 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

It’s 1954, and San Francisco writer Phoebe Kelley is enjoying the success of her first novel, Lady in the Desert. When Phoebe’s sister-in-law asks her to return to Tribulation, Arizona to help run the H Double Bar Dude Ranch, she doesn’t hesitate. There’s competition from a new dude ranch this year, so the H Double Bar puts on a rodeo featuring a trick rider with a mysterious past. When accidents begin to happen around the ranch, Phoebe jumps in to figure out why, and confronts an unexpected foe. And a man from her own past forces her to confront feelings long buried. Dude or Die is the second book in the award-winning H Double Bar Dude Ranch series. 

This title is available to read on #KindleUnlimited.

Lynn Downey

Lynn Downey is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, historian of the West, and native Californian.

She was the Historian for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco for 25 years. Her adventures as ambassador for company history took her around the world, where she spoke to television audiences, magazine editors, and university students, appeared in numerous documentaries, and on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She wrote many books and articles about the history of the company and the jeans, and her biography, Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World, won the Foreword Reviews silver INDIE award.

Lynn got interested in dude ranches during her time at Levi’s. Her debut historical novel, Dudes Rush In, is set on an Arizona dude ranch in the 1950s; Arizona because she’s a desert rat at heart, and the 1950s because the clothes were fabulous.

Dudes Rush In won a Will Rogers Medallion Award, and placed first in Arizona Historical Fiction at the New Mexico-Arizona book awards. The next book in this series, Dude or Die, was released in 2023. And just for fun, Lynn wrote a screenplay based on Dudes Rush In, which is currently making the rounds of reviewers and competitions.

She pens short stories, as well. “The Wind and the Widow” took Honorable Mention in the History Through Fiction story contest, and “Incident at the Circle H” was a Finalist for the Longhorn Prize from Saddlebag Dispatches. The story “Goldie Hawn at the Good Karma Café,” won second place in The LAURA Short Fiction contest from Women Writing the West, and is based on her experiences in a San Francisco religious cult in the 1970s. (That will be another book one of these days.)  

Lynn’s latest nonfiction book is American Dude Ranch: A Touch of the Cowboy and the Thrill of the West, a cultural history of the dude ranch. It was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal, True West, Cowgirl, and The Denver Post, and was a Finalist for the Next Generation INDIE Award in Nonfiction. Kirkus Reviews said the book is “…deeply engaging and balances accessible writing style with solid research.”

When she’s not writing, Lynn works as a consulting archivist and historian for museums, libraries, cultural institutions, and businesses. She is the past president of Women Writing the West, a member of the Western Writers of America, and is on numerous boards devoted to archives and historic preservation. 

Lynn lives in Sonoma, California, where she sometimes makes wine from the Pinot Noir grapes in her back yard vineyard.

Connect with Lynn:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for hosting Lynn Downey today, with such a fascinating guest post about ladies’ fashion at dude ranches!

    Take care,
    Cathie xx
    The Coffee Pot Book Club


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