Incredible Western Women Series
For those of you just joining us, here’s a little background…
Born in the small town of Colville, WA, I was raised in the Spokane suburbs and moved to rural America with my husband a little over three decades ago. Country life is an amazing place to raise our sons and grandkids. Here on the Colville Reservation, we have lakes, rivers, and creeks to fishing and swim in, hills and mountains to ride horses and hike on, and plenty of space to enjoy family time.
Four generations have grown up and enjoyed this land and all it provides.
I’d like to share rural America with you through the words and photos of incredible western women.
And if you are a western woman or have someone in mind who can share their stories with us, please pass on their name and contact information to me. I’d love to include them on this journey.
So now, let’s open the corral gate and hear from this month’s western woman!
Lynn Downey is a native California writer, archivist, and historian, the fifth generation of her family to live in the beautiful city of Sonoma.
After a thirty-year career as an in-house archivist and historian, she now a historical and archival consultant. How cool is that! She works with museums, businesses, and non-profits to create archives, curate exhibits, write books, and plan anniversaries.
Without further ado, let’s hear from Lynn.
I’ll admit it: I’m a dude. Actually, I’m a dudine, since I’m a woman. I say this because I grew up around horses and cowboys, but I never learned to ride. During the late 1950s and 1960s, my uncle raised quarter horses in a rural suburb east of San Francisco, and two of my cousins were bulldoggers and calf ropers on the rodeo circuit. I went out to see the horses whenever we visited the relatives, and when I was about 4 someone put me on one of them for a cute photo, but you can see how uneasy I was.
However, what I took from my years around horseflesh, cowboys, big buckles, and visits to the Grand National Rodeo was a love of western history, which I have been writing about for over thirty-five years. And perhaps appropriately, I’m also obsessed with dude ranching.
I’d always heard about dude ranches but never came across them until I was hired by Levi Strauss & Co. to be the company’s Historian back in 1989. I was in charge of the firm’s Archives, and among its collection of old clothing catalogs was something called “Dude Ranch Duds” from 1938. I did some research and learned a lot about how easterners wanted to wear western-inspired clothing on their dude ranch vacations. I also started reading the history of dude ranching and got hooked.
I started to collect dude ranch memorabilia and in 2011, while writing a book about the history of Wickenburg, Arizona, I decided I should stay at one. I spent a few glorious days at the Flying E Ranch and got on a horse for the first time since 1965. (Yes, I was very sore the next day.) I spent time at Wickenburg’s Rancho de Los Caballeros on a Levi Strauss & Co. sponsored press tour for fashion editors in 2013, which was also big fun.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to dude ranchers and figured out why this unique American vacation is still with us. It’s because of the people. Yes, everyone enjoys the horseback riding, nature walks, quiet time in the lodge, and great food, but what pulls it all together is the ranchers themselves, and the legendary open-hearted hospitality of the West.
When I was at the Flying E some of the other guests had been coming to the ranch for years, and were such experienced riders they didn’t need much help getting ready for their twice-daily rambles through the desert. When it was my turn, however, the wrangler was ready to give me a hand as I struggled to get into the saddle and when I needed to get off the horse a couple of hours later. But I never felt he or anyone else thought less of me because I was such a dudine. They were happy I was there and pleased that I wanted to give horses another try. All they wanted to do was share what the ranch had to offer, and it didn’t matter what I chose, as long as I was having a good time.
While doing research for my forthcoming book, a cultural history of dude ranching, I came across a memoir titled, Starting from Scratch: The Adventures of a Lady Dude Rancher. It was written by Alice Gleason who, with her husband Kenneth, ran the Circle 8 Guest Ranch near Choteau, Montana, from 1930-1978. They were inspired to open their place when they watched the dude ranchers come into Billings for meetings in the 1920s. Here’s what Alice said about them in her memoir, and it perfectly expresses the philosophy of dude ranching today.
“To us, who loved the land, the outdoor life and Montana, it looked like the kind of life we wanted to live and to share with others.”
Connect with Lynn
Lynn Downey has been writing since childhood, but didn’t get paid for it until she sold her first magazine article in 1985. Since then, she has published articles and books on the varied history of the American West. Her first novel came out in 2020, a historical mystery set on an Arizona dude ranch, called Dudes Rush In. Her next book, a cultural history of dude ranching, will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2022.
Lynn sits behind her cousin Shannon on Ginger, watched over by her mom and cousin Chuck, around 1958.
Lynn’s cousin Chuck bulldogging at the Hayward, California rodeo in 1977.
Ready for her trail ride at the Flying E dude ranch in Wickenburg, Arizona, 2011.