By Mary Minor Davis –
A Legacy of True Dude Ranching
“As long as I can look at those mountains for the rest of my life, I’ll let you throw our lives away.”
That’s how Cynthia True gave her blessing to her husband, Allen, when he pitched his idea to purchase a dude ranch in Tucson.
Both had been working for the oil industry in Colorado when Allen decided he’d had it with living in the cold weather. On a whim, he flew to Tucson, visited the White Stallion Ranch at the suggestion of a commercial realtor, and decided he wanted to own it.
“Just because you worked as a wrangler at Glacier Park at 12, and as a maid a year later, doesn’t mean you know anything about horses or running a hotel,” it is said that Cynthia told her husband, initially vetoing the idea.
But Allen was smitten with the idea of buying the ranch, and he ultimately convinced his wife to go along with the move.
According to the tale, as told by son, Russell, the 200-acre ranch “needed a lot of work” when Allen purchased it for $200,000 in 1965. Allen moved to Tucson ahead of the family, leaving his wife and young son in Denver, took over the ranch, and began building a house for his forgiving bride.
In March 1965, Cynthia, with 5-year-old Russell and his new baby brother, Michael, settled into their new home. The ranch reopened to guests that October and a legacy was born.
Today, White Stallion Ranch sits on about 3,000 acres and has grown from 17 to 42 rooms and suites. After adding a pool, spa, tennis courts and a lodge, Russell estimates the property is worth millions. He emphasizes that it’s just an estimate as the property has never been priced for sale – but there have been offers. After his parents passed away, first his father in 1991, followed by his mother in 1999, Russell and Michael became co-owners of the property.
Dude ranches have a long and colorful history, first opening in the 1800s to people from the East Coast eager to experience the western ranch lifestyle. In the early days, guests worked side-by-side with the family ranchers and wranglers as they did their daily routine around the ranch. Over time, some dudes acquired ranches of their own – and they still do today. They come, they fall in love, and either buy the ranch where they stayed, or something similar, Russell said.
“My parents were dudes, absolutely,” Russell said. “But it takes an unusual guest who is on the receiving end of this experience – in what for many can be life-changing – who can then move to the service end. My parents understood this, and also knew enough to know what they didn’t know.”
Russell said after a number of employment trials and errors − what his father often referred to as the “bum of the month” where he was constantly replacing maintenance and housekeeping staff − they learned how to bring in the right people to meet the service standards and values that White Stallion still exhibits today.
“My parents always said, ‘Make everything seem as if the guests never see it happening.’ This is our mantra today,” he said.
Where once there were more than 100 dude ranches in the Tucson area, White Stallion is now only one of two remaining operating ranches. They’ve served thousands of guests over the years, from local families to visitors from around the world.
Russell admits the six core philosophies of “horses, hats, hospitality, heritage, heart and honesty” have remained the same, but “everything else about dude ranching has changed.
“The biggest mistake dude ranches are making today is that they don’t recognize that they run a hotel first and foremost. If they don’t see that, they won’t be successful.”
Russell quickly clarifies that providing the ranch experience remains unique, but horses are not always at the heart of what guests are looking for, though they remain an important ingredient for the vacation. People’s expectations of dude ranches in terms of room quality, food quality and amenities have “skyrocketed,” he said.
In 2009, in response to the recession’s impact on their annual occupancy, Russell said they made the decision to open year-round. The move has been “highly successful,” he said, with occupancy levels running at or near full occupancy. While they’ve never recaptured the family business lost in the recession, summer and shoulder seasons have made up a lot of the annual occupancy losses.
“I believe we’re here for 50 years because we’ve listened to our guests,” Russell said. “Today’s dude ranches are successful because they’ve raised the quality with people’s expectations.”
Wi-Fi, tennis courts, swimming pools and dietary choices have been among the many amenities they’ve added over the years.
Between 2012 and 2015, Russell said, the ranch went through a complete reconstruction and renovation project to add rooms and remodel them to provide more contemporary room styles, all while maintaining a western feel. He said they offer “four-star rooms in a dude-ranch way.
“We have no business competing with the Westin La Paloma or the Ritz-Carlton – but we can aspire to that level of quality while still maintaining a dude ranch feel, flair and atmosphere,” he said. “Anything else and we’d be trying to be something we’re not, instead of being who we are and doing what we should be.”
The biggest change Russell said they had to address is the existence of social media. Once upon a time, it was the Mobil Travel Guide published annually that provided travelers with information and ratings about locations.
“Social media is immediate and it has credibility” and it reaches a much larger audience, he said. “One person has more power than that Mobil Guide ever had. If you’re not managing your ranch around social media, then you’re an idiot.”
Looking forward, Russell said the family legacy continues. His sons, David and Steven, both have completed their education and are now working the ranch full-time, along with Russell’s wife, Laura, brother Michael and his wife, Kirsten.
“We’ve made a huge investment in making this ranch the number one in Tucson,” Russell said. “We plan on being in this community for a long time.”