Ghosts in the Sagebrush

Tumbledown structures recall dude ranching’s heyday

No signposts point the way to the Bar BC Ranch in the Grand Teton National Park. Visitors must find a rutted, sagebrush-shrouded dirt accessway near the Cottonwood Creek turnout of the main Teton Park Road. A bone-rattling ten-minute drive leads to a locked gate atop a hill. Sprawling by the Snake River below, the Bar BC looks perfectly preserved, with several log cabins and a horse corral nestled in the shade of cottonwood trees. But go closer and most of its structures seem about to collapse. A look through the buildings' dusty, shattered windows reveals old stone fireplaces, antique wallpaper, porcelain bathtubs and broken floorboards thick with marmot scat. Purple wildflowers poke through the timbers of what appears to be a dance floor.

Back in the 1920s, dude ranching's heyday, the Bar BC lay at the crossroads of the Jackson Hole social whirl. It was run by Princeton-educated author Struthers Burt and physician Horace Carncross—both early supporters of the national park. Here, Burt and his wife, western novelist Katharine Newlin Burt, held gatherings for local residents and their guests, which included Eastern writers, artists, poets and socialites, and Hollywood filmmakers. Each summer, for about $300 a month, the Burts and Carncross would host some 50 dudes in the ranches' 45 cabins, and these tenderfoots, along with the wranglers and ranch hands who worked there, created a thriving seasonal village within the valley.

Today, the Bar BC is but one of 318 historic structures scattered across the valley floor. (The Bar BC operated as summer cabins until the late-1980s, when it was taken over by the park service.) Purists want to see all man-made objects removed from the park, but others argue that the rough-hewed "vernacular architecture" should be preserved.

Best known from photographs is the picturesque Mormon Row on Antelope Flats, structures built by Mormon settlers who crossed Teton Pass in 1893. One of them, the very photogenic Moulton Barn, has appeared on innumerable calendar and guidebook covers. Constructed in 1913, its weathered peaked roof echoes the jagged, snowcapped mountains behind it; where the corral once stood, the park's resurgent buffalo herd now grazes. Less known but equally spectacular is the Lucas-Fabian Ranch, which lies off an unmarked road at the foot of the Grand Teton. It was also built in 1913, by Geraldine Lucas, a New York City schoolteacher who took up homesteading as she approached age 50. She was so passionate about her new life that she had her ashes interred on the property. While the ranches' cabins are in good condition, they remain boarded up; several plans have been fielded for the site's use, including one to turn it into an artists-in-residence center, although as yet nothing has come of them. Meanwhile, at the southern end of the park, the White Grass Ranch, built in 1913 as well, is now a facility for teaching people how to restore classic Western structures.

Perhaps the greatest preservation success story is the Murie Ranch, just south of the Moose Visitor Center on the Snake River. When husband-and-wife environmentalists Olaus and Mardy Murie moved here in 1946, this then-primitive outpost became the unlikely nerve center of some of America's most important conservation campaigns. Here, the Muries orchestrated the creation, in 1960, of the Alaska National Wildlife Range and hosted the key meetings that led to the Wilderness Act of 1964. After her husband's death in 1963, Mardy stayed active as "the mother of the conservation movement," helping to add 54 million acres of Alaskan land to the Wilderness Preservation System, among other landmark victories. Before her death at age 101 in 2003, she lived to see the 15-cabin ranch restored to carry on her and her husband's work. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

Today, it hosts retreats and conferences on environmental issues, while the Muries' own cabin remains open, filled with photographs, books, a piano—even the Muries' snowshoes. Murie Center director Brooke Williams hopes that more of the park's deserted ranches can be saved. "These log cabins are as close to nature as a man-made structure can get," he said. "Jackson Hole is one of the places where the modern American conservation movement really began. So where better to discuss how to save our world in the 21st century?"

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