135 years of Western hospitality
Date posted: May 23, 2014
WOLF — Way back when, a man named Sudsy loaded blocks of ice into his Model A Ford and bounced his way around Eatons’ Ranch west of Sheridan. He delivered those blocks of ice daily to refrigerators sitting on porches of guest cabins at the ranch.
A very handy man, Sudsy also had an ice cube maker and would sell cubes of ice to guests so they could enjoy a cocktail on their porch while breathing the clean mountain air for which they had traveled so far.
Sudsy worked at Eatons’ Ranch his entire adult life.
Guest cabins at the renowned dude ranch still feature fridges on the front porch.
Way back when, a woman named Angela Buell donated all her employee shares in Eatons’ Ranch back to the ranch. She told them to use the money to build a cabin that would welcome any guest who called Eatons’ home for a week, a month, a summer.
“It’s called the Holiday House, and it shows you how much people love this ranch,” current Head of Laundry and Supervisor of Housekeeping Becky Youngfield said on a recent tour of the ranch. “God bless that little woman.”
Buell worked for Eatons’ her entire adult life.
Her cabin houses dude ranchers all summer long.
Way back when, in the early 1900s, the Butcher family began coming to Eatons’ as dudes. Last summer, five generations of Butchers were present when W.W. Keen Butcher’s ashes were scattered at Eatons’ Ranch.
Butcher, former chair of the Committee of Seventy watchdog group, died at 97, and there are photographs of him astride a horse at Eatons’ at age 96.
Legacy, loyalty and longevity characterize the ranch in Wolf, Wyoming — the ranch that is Wolf, Wyoming — which, this year, has been a site for true Western hospitality and adventure for 135 years.
“We show them a good time. We’re good dude people. We’re friendly,” Frank Eaton said.
Those looking for secrets on how to maintain a thriving business for 135 years may want more explanation than that, some magic money management tricks or employee training programs, but there aren’t any at Eatons’.
There is hospitality, hard work, and good ol’ fashioned human decency.
“The main thing is our guests. That’s the main thing,” Eaton said.
The clean mountain air, the Wyoming sun, the hearty ranch breakfasts and the prancing of more than 100 horses lined up each morning on the rail by the old white barn also help.
Frank Eaton is part of the fourth generation of Eatons. He is in his 70s now, and technically retired, but he still works around the ranch and picks up mail daily in Ranchester since Wolf is a postal substation. His daughter, Mary Eaton, married to Ty Schmeiser, helps manage the ranch with General Manager Jeff Way.
On many sunny days at the ranch, the sixth generation Eaton can be spotted looking out over the land — from a pack on Mary Eaton’s back. Olivia Eaton Schmeiser is 7 months old, and if she follows the pattern set by her family, she’ll be in the saddle in a year or two and telling stories by the campfire by age 5.
Howard Eaton purchased the ranch in 1904 from Austin Oak Duvall, according to local author and County Commissioner Tom Ringley, who wrote the book, “Wranglin’ Notes” in 2010 about the history of Eatons’ Ranch.
It contained the main house, part of the office building and a smattering of outbuildings. Three Eaton brothers — Howard, Willis and Alden — began to build up their ranch below the Bighorn Mountains, and within no time at all, people began to come.
There are more than a few buildings at Eatons’ Ranch now. There is a barn, a shoeing shed, a dining room, Howard Hall where gatherings and receptions are held, staff housing and 52 guest cabins built along the “Gold Coast” road that runs through the ranch.
The Eatons had a ranch in Medora, South Dakota, from 1879 to 1904. In the 1890s, friends and acquaintances from out east began to visit. After a while, those visits became stays. And those stays became “eating the Eatons out of house and home,” Frank Eaton said. And so, people began to pay to come and live and work on the ranch in South Dakota.
Howard Eaton called these people who paid to work on his ranch, “Dudes,” and the term stuck. Eatons’ Ranch is now considered one of the oldest dude ranches in America.
In 1904, when Howard Eaton bought the ranch, he didn’t intend it to be a dude ranch. He had sold the ranch in South Dakota, which was next door to a ranch owned by Teddy Roosevelt, for a sum he could not refuse and just wanted to start another working ranch in Wyoming, Ringley said in a recent presentation at Eatons’ for the 135th anniversary.
But people came, as they always had with the Eaton family.
“People showed up and ate off ironing boards and began building cabins,” Frank Eaton said.
Many of those cabins remain, some named after the original families who built and occupied them through the Great Depression, World War II and into recent history. They reverted back to the ranch only after the original builders died.
The oldest cabin, the Wigwam, was on the ranch when it was purchased, Youngfield said in her tour. It was brought down the creek board by board from where it sat by an old sawmill.
The Rinehart Cabin was occupied for entire summers by mystery novelist Mary Rinehart in the early 1900s.
The Dailey Cabin, a refuge for renowned photographer Arthur “Pete” Dailey and his daughter Mary Dailey for decades, is still visited by Mary Dailey to this day.
Some dude families have been coming to Eatons’ for seven generations. Tommy Butler started as a waiter at Eatons’ in his teens. He and his wife, Anna, were looking at 70 years of life by the time they retired. Corral boss George Gentry spent nearly 50 years under the sun at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. John Flemming was the ranch’s businessman for 39 years.
Loyalty, legacy and longevity characterize Eatons’ Ranch. But there are other aspects, too, that have given the ranch the sustaining power to thrive for 135 years through the ups and downs that tourist-driven industries face.
Eatons’ is one of the few dude ranches that allow guests to take off for horse rides on their own instead of the typical nose-to-tail trail ride format found many other places. That freedom feeds the spirit of adventure found at Eatons’, Youngfield said.
But it is also a timeless location where life is a little quieter and a little slower.
On a recent tour sponsored by the Sheridan Community Land Trust to commemorate the 135th anniversary, Youngfield lead participants to Stanley Camp, an area with picnic tables and a fire pit below a rock outcropping. She asked them to sit, close their eyes and be quiet. After several minutes, she asked them a question.
“What did you hear?” Youngfield said, then paused.
“Quiet,” she answered herself. “Life is too fast. Every now and then, you need to take a moment to stop and remember what’s in your heart — and then move on with it.”
• Eaton’s Ranch annual horse drive
Every Memorial Day weekend, Eatons’ Ranch drives its horses from their winter pastures east of Sheridan to their summer home at the ranch. It’s a great time to catch the spirit of the West as nearly 200 horses come right through Sheridan.
The horses will leave the Wyarno area at about 7 a.m. Sunday. Wranglers will drive them down East Fifth Street past the visitor’s center and onto West Fifth Street past the Historic Sheridan Inn, the hospital, the fairgrounds and out Soldier Creek Road.
Approximate start time: 9 a.m. Sunday
Approximate finish time: 11 a.m. Sunday
Times are subject to change, so set up early, bring the family and a camera and enjoy the show.
For more information, contact Eaton’s Ranch at 655-9285 or 800-210-1049.