The Wild Midwest

While dude ranches of the American West were more work than play, Michigan-based destinations catered to romantic notions.
Jack and Jill Ranch outside flyer
Jack and Jill Ranch's outside sign - Photography courtesy vintage views

The 1940s and 1950s were the heyday of the cowboy craze. There were singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers; movies with John Wayne; TV westerns like “The Lone Ranger” and pulp westerns by Louis L’Amour on every drugstore paperback book rack. But you didn’t have to travel to Texas or Wyoming to get in touch with your inner cowboy or cowgirl. 

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, dude ranches began to spring up in the Michigan landscape (minus the mountains, canyons and high desert plains.)  A few places bearing the moniker “ranch” — such as the Rainbow Ranch in New Era, which opened in 1949 — offered horseback riding, but not a complete ranch vacation. In 1954, 7,755 Michiganians checked into bunkhouses at six dude ranches located in the northern part of the state. Besides horseback riding, ranches might have offered square-dance hoedowns, hay rides, cookouts, archery, fishing, canoeing, swimming and water-skiing. Staff often doubled as teachers and entertainers.

Wolf Lake Ranch
Wolf Lake Ranch – courtesy Vintage Views

The dude ranches of the American West were mostly working ranches, where cattle were raised as a business, but paying guests could learn to ride horseback, participate in the required daily chores and socialize with real cowboys. In the old days a “dude” was a tenderfoot who came West and tried to emulate a cowboy in dress and manner. In mid-century America, the term referred to a “city feller” who was a guest on a dude ranch. A female dude was a “dudette.” 

The Michigan dude ranches were really adult camps in disguise, with a variety of activities and social events. Some of the ranches catered exclusively to young adults from 19 to 35. These adults were ready to change out their city attire for a cowboy hat, plaid shirt, dungarees and a “hoss.” With romantic notions of the Old West, they were ready to ride tall in the saddle at their Michigan vacation home on the range.

Jack and Jill Ranch Guest Rooms
Jack and Jill Ranch Guest Rooms

The Jack & Jill Ranch near Rothbury, later known as the Double JJ, welcomed its first guests in 1937. Although there were two short-lived Michigan dude ranches established in the 1920s, the Jack & Jill Ranch is credited with pioneering dude ranching in the Midwest. The original owner was George K. Storm. With his staff of 65 wranglers and 65 horses, the Jack & Jill Ranch could accommodate 175 people. A special feature was a steak dinner grilled by the wranglers. The ranch also hosted a greased pig chase, a spitting contest, a wood-chopping contest for the men and a rolling-pin throwing contest for the women.

The Jack & Jill Ranch is credited with pioneering dude ranching in the Midwest.

Gaylord-based Gay El Rancho, later known as El Rancho Stevens, opened in 1948 and was run by “Doc” and Candy Stevens, who actually met at a Michigan dude ranch in 1944. It featured a corral of 30 horses, two private lakes and a long list of sporting activities, including overnight pack trips and all-day canoe excursions. 

Gay El Rancho Saloon
Gay El Rancho Saloon – Courtesy Vintage Views

Thomas Shook opened the Wolf Lake Dude Ranch near Baldwin in 1942. Old logging trails surrounding the property were well-suited for horseback riding. Pack trips, buckboard and hay wagon rides were offered. The Wolf Lake Ranch is still in operation today.

Happy Hanks near Brevort — the Upper Peninsula’s only dude ranch venture — was operated by Henry Gonyeau. A bus would pick up guests in St. Ignace and make the 22-mile trip back to the ranch where barn dances, hay rides and amateur theatricals were offered in addition to riding and the usual sports.

Jack and Jill Ranch
Jack and Jill Ranch – courtesy vintage views

Other dude ranches in Michigan in the 1950s included the Diamond Spur Ranch near Hesperia and the Lost Creek Ranch near Mio. Because many of the guests at Michigan’s dude ranches were single young men and women, dormitory or bunkhouse sleeping accommodations were popular. There was usually a main lodge with a dining room, kitchen, lounge and perhaps even a souvenir shop. Some ranches had barn-like structures for dances with stages for entertainers. The decor was rustic, often with knotty pine paneling and wagon wheel decor offering a casual and comforting ambiance (although a real cowboy would never use that term). As vacation tastes changed, the sun began to set on these classic Michigan dude ranches. Some closed and some adapted by adding new attractions.

But memories of the originals ride on.

New BLUE “Vintage Views” columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids.

silver horse shoe
Image courtesy Thinkstock


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