Monday, March 4, 2024

Discover the world of dude ranches with Lynn Downey, author of Dude Or Die! #HistoricalFiction #DudeRanch #AmeliaEarhart #WesternFiction @WriterLynnD @cathiedunn


H Double Bar Dude Ranch Series

by Lynn Downey

It’s 1954, and San Francisco writer Phoebe Kelley is enjoying the success of her first novel, Lady in the Desert. When Phoebe’s sister-in-law asks her to return to Tribulation, Arizona to help run the H Double Bar Dude Ranch, she doesn’t hesitate.

There’s competition from a new dude ranch this year, so the H Double Bar puts on a rodeo featuring a trick rider with a mysterious past.

When accidents begin to happen around the ranch, Phoebe jumps in to figure out why, and confronts an unexpected foe. And a man from her own past forces her to confront feelings long buried.

Dude or Die is the second book in the award-winning H Double Bar Dude Ranch series.

I’ve been a historian for nearly forty years and only started writing historical fiction seriously after I retired as the company historian for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco. But my twenty-five years with Levi’s sparked an interest that has become the topic of both my fiction and nonfiction: dude ranches.

Dude ranches began in the Rocky Mountain West in the 1880s as a place for men from the eastern states to visit, to go hunting and to live like cowboys for a few weeks. Many ranches were already cattle ranches, so there were cowboys in residence, which fascinated the dudes (a word that meant someone who came West from somewhere else). By the first decades of the 20th century, as World War I began to rage in Europe, families were also taking dude ranch vacations, because they couldn’t travel abroad like they used to. Ranches had opened up all over Montana and Wyoming, and down to the Southwest and southern California, so there were plenty to choose from.   

My novels, Dudes Rush In and the new sequel, Dude or Die, are set on a fictional Arizona dude ranch in the 1950s. My last nonfiction book was a cultural history of these places, titled American Dude Ranch: A Touch of the Cowboy and the Thrill of the West. I did research for all my works in libraries, archives, historic newspapers, and history books. I also started collecting dude ranch memorabilia and I have about one hundred items in a box under my desk right now.

What piqued my interest was a catalog in the Levi’s archives titled, “Dude Ranch Duds,” printed in 1938. The company made clothing just to be worn on dude ranches: from the typical jeans (including jeans for women) to wild western shirts and gabardine, side-zip riding pants. I was fascinated by the idea that you could wear special clothing just to take a vacation. The historian in me had to know more, and I found stories I never expected. 

Dude Ranch Duds image courtesy Levi Strauss & Co. Archives, San Francisco

One of my favorite finds was the surprising link between dude ranches and Amelia Earhart.

In 1934 a man named Carl Dunrud owned the Double Dee dude ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming, about thirty miles south of Cody. He also led pack trips for tourists through Yellowstone National Park and he had taken publisher George Putnam on one of these trips in the 1920s. George was Amelia Earhart’s husband. The couple had married in 1931 and he wanted her to experience the beauty of Wyoming. So, in the summer of 1934 Earhart drove across country – alone – to the Double Dee, and George followed her later.

A well-known photographer named Charles Belden was a co-owner of the Pitchfork Ranch, a dude outfit about twenty miles from the Double Dee, and he heard that the famous flier was in the neighborhood. So, he drove over and with Earhart’s permission, took a series of charming photographs. In one especially funny image, she sits by a corral while Carl Dunrud pretends to cut her hair with sheep shears. She posed with the ranch’s dogs, and looked very relaxed wearing denim trousers, a checked shirt, and men’s shoes.

She loved the area so much she filed a claim at a nearby mining village called Kirwin, and asked Carl to build her a cabin at the Double Dee, which he started to work on in 1936. She also sent him a few things to store for her, including a buffalo coat that cowboy movie star William S. Hart had given her, along with one of her flight jackets.

Then, on May 21, 1937, Earhart took off on her around-the-world flight. Two months later she and her navigator vanished forever.

Carl Dunrud was heartsick at the loss, and invited George Putnam to return to the ranch, but he couldn’t face it. The Double Dee closed during World War II, and in 1966 Carl donated Earhart’s two coats to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody.

When I was writing my nonfiction book, I was awarded a resident fellowship at the Buffalo Bill Center’s McCracken Research Library, to study the materials they have on dude ranches. That’s where I learned about Amelia Earhart’s short but sweet stay at a local ranch, and saw the buffalo coat she’d given to Carl Dunrud.

Lynn Downey at Double Dee (c) Lynn Downey

I also went to the old Double Dee, which is now managed by the Shoshone National Forest. Many of the cabins are still there, and I wandered among them thinking about the woman who loved the sky, but also loved the short time she spent walking on the rocky soil of a Wyoming dude ranch.

Double Dee cabin (c) Lynn Downey

Synopsis: It’s 1954, and San Francisco writer Phoebe Kelley returns to the H Double Bar dude ranch in Tribulation, Arizona to help her late husband’s sister Mary, her husband Sam, and their young son Joe run the ranch for the fall season. Phoebe and the ranch were introduced in the first book in this series, Dudes Rush In. There’s stiff competition from a new guest ranch in town, called the Desert Grande, run by a powerful woman named Thelma Powell who seems determined to put other ranches out of business. Phoebe and Mary decide to put on a “dudeo,” a rodeo for both the ranch’s wranglers and the visiting dudes, to thwart Thelma’s efforts. They bring in a trick rider from California with a mysterious past named Eden Williams, and a man from Phoebe’s past also reappears. When accidents happen around the ranch, Phoebe must confront an unexpected foe.

Excerpt from Chapter 20:

Virgil Freeman, a man from Phoebe’s past in Dudes Rush In, is visiting the H Double Bar. They have breakfast the morning after a mysterious midnight fire in a tool shed, and after Phoebe acts on her suspicion that one of the guests is in league with Thelma Powell and the Desert Grande guest ranch.

“How are you this morning?” Virgil asked.

“OK, I guess. I managed to get some sleep, how about you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Have you seen Mary?”

“Yes, I went over to the site of the fire a few minutes ago, and she is there talking with Sam about rebuilding. She already called her friend at the Bar K and he’s bringing over some tack for today’s trail ride.”

“It’s wonderful the way all the ranches pull together,” said Virgil, who had given his plate to Maryanne and asked for seconds on bacon.

“I know, it’s a very special kind of business,” said Phoebe. “Well, except for the Desert Grande, of course.”

“That place doesn’t sound much like a dude ranch to me.”

“That’s what Mary says. She is sure they are behind some of the mishaps that we’ve had around here.”

“Why would they do that?”

“To put her out of business? Who knows.”

“Have you had any more trouble here from that Carter fellow?”

Phoebe hesitated a moment, then made a decision.

“Well, not exactly trouble, but I did find out something about the both of them.”

She told Virgil about seeing Jayne at the Desert Grande, and about what she found when she searched the Carters’ cabin.

His reaction surprised her. She had never seen Virgil look mad.

“Phoebe, what were you thinking? First of all, that was completely illegal, and what if they came back early and found you? That could have been a disaster for Sam and Mary and their business. And dangerous for you. That Carter guy has a temper, he could have hurt you.”

Phoebe was shocked at his scolding tone, and then she got angry.

“Don’t lecture me, I was very careful, and I can take care of myself.”

“Just because you survived the last time a man threatened you, doesn’t mean it will happen again.” 

A guest at the H Double Bar had been killed two years ago, and his murderer pulled a gun on Phoebe when she confronted him. She got away, but had nightmares for a long time.

“I’m worried about you,” Virgil continued.

Phoebe saw a couple of the guests looking their way and lowered her voice.

“Well, you don’t have to be,” Phoebe retorted.

“I know you love Mary and Sam, but does your loyalty to your late husband mean you have to put yourself in danger for them?”

Phoebe gaped at him.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Maryanne brought Virgil’s bacon at that moment, saw the look on his face, and Phoebe’s, and set the plate down quickly.

When she had scurried away, Phoebe continued.

“First of all, I am not loyal to Jack. He died ten years ago and I’ve moved on with my life. I come here because Mary is like my own sister, and her family is my family. The Desert Grande is a real threat to their business and I will do whatever I can to protect it.”

“You’re being reckless, Phoebe. Please don’t do anything to get yourself hurt.”

“I am not reckless, I know what I’m doing.”

“I don’t think you do.” Virgil stood up.  “And it’s obvious I can’t talk you out of any course you plan to take.”

He put his napkin on the table next to the untouched plate.

“I think I should go. Please thank Mary for her hospitality. And please take care of yourself.”

Before Phoebe could respond Virgil left the table and she watched him walk out the lodge door. She sat at the table for a few more minutes, then got up and looked out the front window. Virgil’s car was gone.

This title is available to read on #KindleUnlimited.

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Lynn Downey

Lynn Downey is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, historian of the West, and native Californian.

She was the Historian for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco for 25 years. Her adventures as ambassador for company history took her around the world, where she spoke to television audiences, magazine editors, and university students, appeared in numerous documentaries, and on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She wrote many books and articles about the history of the company and the jeans, and her biography, Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World, won the Foreword Reviews silver INDIE award.

Lynn got interested in dude ranches during her time at Levi’s. Her debut historical novel, Dudes Rush In, is set on an Arizona dude ranch in the 1950s; Arizona because she’s a desert rat at heart, and the 1950s because the clothes were fabulous.

Dudes Rush In won a Will Rogers Medallion Award, and placed first in Arizona Historical Fiction at the New Mexico-Arizona book awards. The next book in this series, Dude or Die, was released in 2023. And just for fun, Lynn wrote a screenplay based on Dudes Rush In, which is currently making the rounds of reviewers and competitions.

She pens short stories, as well. “The Wind and the Widow” took Honorable Mention in the History Through Fiction story contest, and “Incident at the Circle H” was a Finalist for the Longhorn Prize from Saddlebag Dispatches. The story “Goldie Hawn at the Good Karma Café” won second place in The LAURA Short Fiction contest from Women Writing the West, and is based on her experiences in a San Francisco religious cult in the 1970s. (That will be another book one of these days.)

Lynn’s latest nonfiction book is American Dude Ranch: A Touch of the Cowboy and the Thrill of the West, a cultural history of the dude ranch. It was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal, True West, Cowgirl, and The Denver Post, and was a Finalist for the Next Generation INDIE Award in Nonfiction. Kirkus Reviews said the book is “…deeply engaging and balances accessible writing style with solid research.”

When she’s not writing, Lynn works as a consulting archivist and historian for museums, libraries, cultural institutions, and businesses. She is the past president of Women Writing the West, a member of the Western Writers of America, and is on numerous boards devoted to archives and historic preservation. 

Lynn lives in Sonoma, California, where she sometimes makes wine from the Pinot Noir grapes in her back yard vineyard.

Connect with Lynn:

Website • Blog • Twitter • Facebook • Instagram • Bluesky

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