Jan. 4, 2006 - They meandered down the trail, a long line of horseback riders raising a small cloud of dust barely visible from the road. Some of the riders had smiles on their faces, while the wranglers leading the trail ride appeared more subdued, perhaps even a bit weary, as they came closer to the stopped vehicle at the entry to the ranch. Instead of waiting to find out how the horses and novice riders would react to a moving vehicle, the wranglers stopped the ride and waved the car forward. Once it had passed, the ride continued toward the corral, the "dudes" unaware of the concerns of the wranglers. The horses had not reacted adversely to the running vehicle and none of the guests had ended up on their butts or heads. It was just another item for guests to add to a letter home about their day at the White Stallion Ranch - "The ride was wonderful, and the horses as gentle as could be."
The White Stallion Ranch, along with the Lazy K Bar Ranch and the Tanque Verde Ranch are the last of the "Dude" ranches in the Tucson area. Once teeming with ranches from the Catalina, Tucson and Rincon Mountains to the center of the valley, an industry that once numbered 100 strong has been swallowed up by an expanding city. Some ranches having successfully transformed into resorts, while others simply made way for the sprawl. The West still exists here in Tucson, but not the way it appeared during the heyday of the Dude Ranch from the 1930s through the 1950s.
Dude Ranching had its birth in the northern tier of our nation not many years after George Custer and his men met their demise at Little Big Horn. Once the wars between the Western Plains natives and the army came to an end, a curious thing began to happen - people started to travel west just to see it.
At first it was a trickle, and based on the time honored tradition of America, particularly out West, perfect strangers who asked for food and shelter at cattle ranches dotting the countryside were often welcomed with open arms. These far-flung ranches were often the only places where weary travelers could stop between the distant towns of those days. And it was often as much a joy for the isolated residents of these ranches to hear news from back East as it was for this new breed of traveler to see the workings of a real cattle spread.
But as the decades of the 19th century moved toward the 20th, the trickle soon began to resemble a torrent, and the cost of these frequent visitors soon stretched even the best of budgets. But another curious aspect to all this began to manifest itself - visitors were willing to help out in the everyday workings of the ranch in exchange for room and board. Heck, some of them were even willing to pay the rancher for the pleasure of helping him out with his chores.
By the latter 1880s, a regular industry was well on its way to becoming an American institution.
The reality of the latter 1800s was Eastern Americans had forgotten their pioneer roots, or to put it more accurately, they were seeking out what they felt was the "True America." Lawrence R. Borne probably said it best in his book "Dude Ranching: A Complete History," when describing what paved the way for what eventually became a major force in our culture. "Dude ranching did not begin at a specific time and then simply grow into a large industry. It developed slowly from several divergent sources in different locales and varying circumstances and then gradually assumed a definite and identifiable form," Borne wrote. "One of these sources is simply the general appeal of the Rocky Mountains and western plains country."
The Americans of the settled East sought the legends of their history in a part of the country still wild and open. And it wasn't very long before Arizona soon joined forces with the Dude Ranch industry.
In nearly all the cases, the ranches originally started out as a cattle operation. Even in the arid Southwest the first duty of the ranch was moving cattle around from section to section, making sure the animals had enough to eat. But unlike their cousins in Wyoming, Colorado and Montana, the cattle operations in Arizona were often on a smaller scale. Even in the best of times in Arizona, when the rains are consistent and plentiful, there is only so much feed to go around in this arid land. The result is smaller ranches and a greater chance of failure when a rough period comes along.
What our territory had in the 19th century, and still does in the 21st, is ideal weather worth crowing home about.
Tanque Verde Ranch is one such place that survived the ups and downs of the cattle industry and actually became one of the premier destinations for people seeking out, as stated in their press packet, "the last luxurious outpost of the Old West." No statement could come closer to the truth.
Established in 1868 by Emilio Carrillo, Tanque Verde was first off a cattle ranch. With the eastern side of the Tucson valley receiving far more rain than many other parts of the area, locating the ranch at the base of the Rincon mountain range made a lot of sense. Not only could you run the beeves in the foothills, but also up into the valley known as Redington Pass. With streams coming out of Canyon Del Salto and Tanque Verde Canyon, especially the latter, as well as several springs in the area, Tanque Verde ranch was never in fear of running dry.
But the threat of Apache raids was certainly a reality in the latter 1860s. Having Fort Lowell located down near the confluences of the Tanque Verde and Rillito creeks was pretty reassuring. Often the cavalry would water their horses at the ranch while out on patrol.
Once the era of the Apache wars came to an end, the southern part of the territory took off. With the advent of railroad service to Tucson and the spreading word of the health benefits of our area, the birth of a new industry had begun.
"Many guest ranches catered more for people with health problems," Bob Cote said. There was "more of an elegant clientele who wanted to come west for health, but also for recreation and to experience the 'Cowboy Way.'" Cote, a second generation owner of Tanque Verde Ranch and a long time lover of the West, knows the business inside out and loves showing people the history of the ranch and the wonders of the surrounding area.
The Dude Ranches that developed up in the Northern Rockies were all about the Cowboy and experiencing the rugged way of life. For Arizona, it was more about learning to breathe again and to soak in the sun.
Cote, who once ran this family ranch for a check but is now the spokesman, (his wife is actually paid for running it since he retired), said the first guesthouses were attached to the original building in the 1920s, though they are no longer used. A recent tour of the original building, which now serves as the entry point to the main dining room and conference area, was met by a herd of Safeway managers and sales representatives pouring out the ancient looking screen door. Outside with the modern dressed guests, the building had all the ambiance of the Old West.
Today Tanque Verde is a riding ranch with nearly 170 horses and 700 cattle.
Cattle? Though the ranch is a guest ranch, Cote says they do run some cattle up near the Bellota Ranch in Redington Pass, a 60,000-acre enterprise that is an extended part of the 640-acre Tanque Verde operation.
Cote's family purchased the ranch in 1944 in part to extend their family operation year-round. Originally from Minnesota, his parents ran camps for boys and girls and eventually opened a lake resort for adults, particularly "for the parents who came up to visit or pick up their children," Cote said. "There were no hotels up there at the time" so it made sense to open up a place for them."
So, in the early days Mr. Cote's parents owned the resort and camps, but since it only ran from May 15 until Sept. 15, they would have to retrain a staff each new season. By purchasing a ranch in Tucson they could move the whole operation south for the winter.
Cote, who has been riding horses since age two, remembers the hectic moves between the seasons, as family members and staff gathered up belongings to move from one locale to another, taking everything from clothing to pans to bedding and tack items. Then the caravan would head south; people, animals and all the needed paraphernalia for running a guest ranch. Today the ranch is kept open all year while the camps for the boys and girls in Minnesota are closed after the summer season.
Though the focus of Tanque Verde is on being a riding ranch, over the years other activities have been developed. "Riding is our biggest operation," Cote said. "We're in the family business. Not everyone wants to ride, so we started coming up with other programs."
Along with horseback riding, there is tennis, hiking, nature walks, mountain biking and swimming, as well as certain spa treatments, if you so desire.
There is also the Desert Awareness Center that looks more like a building out of Old Tucson. Inside, there is a plethora of information about bats, critters that crawl in the night and snakes - live ones, all of them rattlesnakes. Cote said it is important to him and many at the ranch to give the guests an education about the local environment and its importance.
And even though it has certain eloquence to it, Cote says they have always tried to run the "resort as a camp experience. People want to learn, want to grow and enjoy that satisfaction." With that comes the first important part of Tanque Verde: riding.
"Trail rides are so varied that many people continue to come back," Cote said. Nearly 70 percent of his guests are repeat visitors, he said.
Tanque Verde Ranch has been a destination for many the world over, from the iconic Western actors of Hollywood to the posh residents of Park Avenue, the ranch remains a favorite hideaway for such people. Being surrounded by the Coronado National Forest and Saguaro National Park, Tanque Verde Ranch will be a landmark for decades to come.
For the Lazy K Bar Ranch and White Stallion Ranch, civilization is knocking on their doorstep. At one time these two ranches, which actually border each other at certain points, were a long ways from Tucson and nearby Marana was just farm country. Today, the metro area is oozing its way all around them. Luckily though, both have mountains and acreage to buffer themselves from the onslaught of Marana housing and the increase in traffic.
Lazy K Bar Ranch sits on the west side of the Tucson Mountains below Safford Peak. Though some of it is visible from a growing Marana neighborhood, the old homestead is just shy of a rise and inside the confines of a boulder-strewn enclave. It has a rustic ambiance and a very laid back feeling to it, though the pool is a dead giveaway that this is Arizona and not Montana (the cactus and the warm November day add to that knowledge). The rooms are separated and low key, nothing outwardly fancy or resort style. The entrance to the office is unassuming, but very peaceful and homey. The life of the West lives here, in every part of the ranch.
A shadow box in the restaurant displays relics of a Western past, a rifle, barbwire, shards of pottery and spurs.
The outdoor patio is all decked out in fall regalia, a scarecrow, bales of hay and pumpkins. But the temperature seems more like May than fall, and that the ranch should be moving toward its seasonal closing, rather than in the early stages of opening.
What is unique about Lazy K Bar is how it is nestled into a tall nook of the Tucson Mountains; there is just something about the feeling of this place.
First settled in 1928 by a Tennessee family, it originally was made up of 160 acres and lasted eight years as a regular ranch. In 1936 it was sold and went from homestead to guest ranch. It was purchased by the Van Cleve family, who were able to do as Cote's family did - run a ranch in Montana during the summer and one down here in winter. Both were called the Lazy K Bar Ranch and it was one way of keeping good wranglers and staff on hand all year.
Legend has it that the location of the ranch was also a favorite place for Native Americans, particularly Apache. It is said that in the early 1930s the Apache would still line up on the ridgeline above the ranch, fascinating many of the occupants, but creeping out the owner's wife. According to the ranch's Web site, "Generations of Lazy K owners tell tales of visits from friendly spirits who built campfires and strolled the trails."
Roy DeBise, general manager for the ranch today, said it is one of the better places he has had the "honor" to be a part of. "I never dreamed of running a Dude ranch, but I was ready for something different."
Hailing from the Philadelphia area and having worked nearly his entire adult life in the hotel business, DeBise had worked at other resorts in the mountain areas of the east coast. He had vacationed in Arizona many times, especially here in Tucson, and when the chance came for him to work here two years ago, he jumped at it. He loves the laid back atmosphere of the area and of the ranch, but he is still a busy man, always talking on the telephone to make sure arrangements have been finalized for one guest or another or making sure an upcoming event has no kinks to it.
According to DeBise, many of the newer guests coming out have only dreamed of seeing the West, and they often view the scenery much like a small child views Christmas or Disneyland for the first time.
"The neat thing about the ranch, when people come out here it is a lifetime fantasy. It's like they are seeing Mickey Mouse for the first time," he said.
And he has lots of guests from the United Kingdom who have been raised on American Westerns or Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey novels. "Some of them have a fear of horses at first, but once we get them up there, they want to keep riding," DeBise says. "We make their dreams a reality." The 1939 Western, "Arizona," was filmed around the area of the ranch, as were television shows such as "Gunsmoke" and "High Chaparral."
The Lazy K Bar is only opened during the winter months, from September to May. But people can still plan special occasions at the ranch all year round. DeBise says weddings are always happening at the ranch, as well as business or office meetings at their Stardance Center or Mountain Pavilion Conference Center.
There is also bull riding every Friday night at 7:30 during the season as well as Cowboy cookouts every Tuesday and Saturday, at 7. Both are open to the public, but DeBise says a 24-hour reservation is required for the cookouts.
Like the other two Dude Ranches in the valley, White Stallion Ranch is a family-owned enterprise. Starting out as a cattle ranch it expanded in the 1930s to include 30,000 chickens and turkeys. But in 1940 the ranch changed hands and under the auspices of a liquor storeowner from Chicago it became the MZ Bar Ranch. It was one of 100 guest ranches in the area and could handle up to 100 guests with 12 rooms.
Russell True, one of the siblings who today helps run the family business, said Max Zimmerman, the liquor store owner who purchased the ranch, sold it in the late 1940s to the Dupont family, who then provided housing to air force personnel up until 1958 when the MZ was sold to a family from Cape Cod.
The Cape Cod couple, Brew and Marge Towne, had planned on calling the place the "Black Stallion" (after the novel) but when a friend presented Mr. Towne with a bola tie with the ranch's initials "BS," well, he knew there was a problem. Towne decided to change the name to White Stallion, though the ranch history states that a pure white stallion has never existed on the property since the Arizona sun would probably burn the poor animal's hide right off.
In 1965 the True family from Denver purchased the property and Russell True grew up like few other kids in Tucson, riding horses and meeting the world.
According to both Russell True and the ranch history, by the mid-1960s there were only about 25 Dude ranches remaining in and around Tucson. The amazing growth in the metro area spelled the demise of the ranches. True's parents saw the writing on the wall and proceeded to buy up acreage around the ranch as it became available. Originally set at just 160 acres, the ranch today stands at nearly 3,000. And it's a good thing, too, as a drive over Twin Peaks Road shows the evidence of just what the ranch is up against. Across from the many acres of desert, and only separated by the road, is a large bladed area being prepared for 2,500 houses.
The main sign outside the ranch compound announces White Stallion is a member of the Dude Ranchers Association; an organization founded in 1926 in the Northern Rockies for those ranches located in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, but has since incorporated all Dude ranches throughout the western United States.
"You can't beat this place!" Ida Jane Miller of the Bay Area said as she sat down in the lobby of what was the original homestead
"Oh, there are all kinds of things to do here, not like the Dude ranches up North (in Montana and Idaho)," she added. "For a single person like me there's plenty to do. Up north there's nothing. He's (True) added so many things, a full gym, and an actual theatre. But it's mostly for the kids. I'm not really interested in the movies. I love the horseback riding."
Russell True is the co-owner of White Stallion, with his brother Michael, the second generation to take over. Russell is more of the hands on guy with the guests and press while Michael is in the background keeping up with horses and paper pushing.
"We're a second generation, family-owned and bought in 1965," True said. "My parents came out here to escape the cold weather." True adds his family had been involved in the oil business but it was during a blizzard that his father had finally had it and "jumped on a plane and started looking (for a ranch) and found one that he felt would survive."
Being only five at the time of their arrival, Russell has seen plenty of change at the ranch, as well as in Tucson. But some things don't change. In the distance, south of the ranch, still stand the Safford and Panther Peaks of the Tucson mountains, much as they did thousands of years ago. The same peaks that often appear in numerous Westerns and television shows.
"I loved it (growing up on the ranch) and felt lucky. I rode horses, hiked and rode my motorcycle. I enjoyed meeting people and was exposed to this amazing array of people," True said.
Having earned a business degree from the University of Arizona, he probably could have gone anywhere in the country with it, but there was never any doubt he would remain at the ranch, True said.
White Stallion itself is a nice cross between Tanque Verde Guest Ranch and the Lazy K Bar Ranch. Lazy K and White Stallion have a friendly relation. And True and Cote are pretty good friends, though they are probably stiff competitors when it comes to the business side of dude ranching.
White Stallion has between 130 and 140 horses and about 125 cattle because, after all, it is a ranch and a weekly rodeo is part of the program for the guests. And another really nice feature to the ranch is all the western artwork that adorns both the interior and exterior of the buildings. What you won't find is some of the extras you have in other hotel rooms, like cable television.
"Even if I took a poll and my guests wanted televisions in the rooms I wouldn't put them in," True said. "I feel that with televisions, people would be less inclined to get out and meet other people, and that's the strength of the dude ranch experience." For him, in order to receive an overall appreciation for ranch life and its laid back atmosphere, you need to meet new people, many of them not even from the United States.
And there are some who have made television and movies their work, but choose the White Stallion to escape from it - Tom Hanks having been a guest several times.
And what happens when a dude ranch loses out to the ooze of civilization? It becomes a resort, even if it is still zoned as a dude ranch. Westward Look Resort & Spa was created as a ranch back when Arizona entered the union as the 48th state, in 1912. Originally built by William and Maria Watson under the auspices of the Homestead Act, this 172-acre ranch was far enough away from Tucson to make it a tough little drive, but close enough for supplies.
According to Donna Kreutz, the resort's public relations director, Merritt Howard Starkweather, the same person who designed the Arizona Inn, designed the original house. It was a traditional-style adobe home with a Spanish-influenced patio and spacious living quarters, as well as an artist's loft
They lived the good life on their own but in the early 1920s decided to share it with certain guests and build an additional 15 cottages. It was about this time that the Dude ranch industry was hitting its full peak all across the West and Tucson was becoming the tourist Mecca of the Southwest. During the next two decades that people came west to enjoy our warm winters. But since there was no air conditioning during those times, the ranch shut down during the summer.
In 1948, Robert and Beverly Nasons purchased the ranch and named it the "Westward Look" after a speech Winston Churchill had delivered in 1943.
The Nasons did much to put the ranch on the map, by adding more rooms with kitchenettes, fireplaces and even allowing Walt Disney Studios to do some filming on the premises.
With advertising and good old fashion personal touches, the Nasons built up a very loyal following. The guests would ride horses up into Pima Canyon and even a chuck wagon would go up to Pima Canyon for cookouts under a dark western sky. But the sky has brightened up greatly with the ranch surrounded by much housing.
So what do you do? The Nasons ended up selling the ranch in the 1960s and from there it took on its resort appearance and even changed its name.
Today there are more than 244 rooms and the resort is owned by Altamont Properties of Seattle, though horseback riding is still on the curriculum. Mrs. Nason still lives on the premises and dines regularly in probably one of the best restaurants in northwest Tucson, the Gold Room. The hotel today hosts many activities, including eco-tourism, where the guests "really do appreciate the very mature vegetation on the premises, " Kreutz said.
Not only does the hotel sport a great deal of beautiful landscaping, but also an organic herb garden for its chefs to use in their Arizona creations.
And even with the modern appearance, when you take a tour of Westward Look you can still see the original house with its thick walls and old wooden floors. At one time it was closed off to the public, but now Kreutz says it is slowly being incorporated back into the main lobby area. Eventually visitors will be able to see the city of Tucson from the original living quarters located up the stairs on the east side of the main desk.
Are our three remaining dude ranches safe from metro Tucson or will they become subdivisions or resorts like Westward Look? The truth is all three have set it up that a least a fairly distant buffer will remain between their open space and surrounding housing.
Tanque Verde Ranch has the National Forest and Park to buffer it, as well as having 60,000 acres of open rangeland on the top of Redington Pass. Mr. & Mrs. True knew in the mid 1960s that purchasing land would help save White Stallion, and they were correct in their assumption. Lazy K Bar not only has White Stallion to their northwest, but Saguaro National Park West as a buffer as well as some of its own acreage. And Westward Look is attempting to move back towards its roots, Kreutz said. Though it will never be the ranch it was, the resort plans to take on more of a western flavor and play up its western roots, while attracting a new kind of tourist interested in environmental preservation. In a sense, we're all trying to do that. Just take one look at the changing landscape of Northwest Tucson and you'll see most of us are going back to natural landscaping and a western flavor. What is lacking is a hitching post in front of every house, but that can certainly be remedied.