Quietly tucked at the base of the Grand Tetons, where the sharp foothills crescendo and fall into Phelps Lake and rise again to the mouth of Death Canyon, lie the last vestiges of Jackson Hole’s earliest dude ranch. Now more than a decade removed, the remnants of the lodges and cabins and boat houses that once dotted this remote expanse of wilderness have all but been erased by the cadence of the seasons, virtually imperceptible save perhaps to those who spent summers working or visiting the once bustling JY Ranch.
It’s no mistake that the only traces of this storied homestead—which at one time hosted heads of state and society’s elite—are now only a few clearings in the otherwise dense forest. No Act of God or stroke of misfortune spelled its undoing, as became many of the valley’s first horse and cattle operations. This return to nature is, in fact, a design generations in the making and the result of the largest conservation effort in the region, dating back to the early 20th Century.
To fully appreciate the achievement of this rugged, sprawling space requires stepping back in time to the pioneer days of Jackson Hole. It is a story of intrigue, of vision and foresight, and one that underscores the natural grandeur of this remarkable destination and the passions that keep it alive.
The Tribulation of Pioneers
In 1903, David Spalding, an outdoorsman and aspiring rancher, founded a modest homestead at the foot of the Teton Mountains. The first settlers had begun to arrive to Jackson Hole in the mid-1880s, most attracted by the area’s natural beauty and the burgeoning cattle trade across the West. But the valley remained largely isolated. Fur traders had frequented the region for decades, compelled by its diversity of wild game. But short growing seasons and rocky soil made it difficult for ranchers to raise hay and crops to support their livestock during the harsh winters.
Spalding, to his misfortune, had landed on one of the most challenging plots of land, despite its stunning beauty. The surrounding mountains caught eastward-moving storm formations, and, elevated above the valley floor, the location accumulated some of the area’s great snowfall. The rocky alpine terrain made cultivating pastures difficult, as did the old-growth pine and cottonwood forests that had to be cleared to give way to grazing.
After only three years of making a go at ranching the property, Spalding turned over the land to Louis Joy and his Princeton-educated business partner, Maxwell Struthers Burt. Both hailing from the East Coast, Joy and Burt saw a different opportunity in the property. At this point, word of Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone region’s natural grandeur had begun to spread. Dude ranches, which offered guests a chance to participate in Western life along with fishing, hunting and pack-tripping, had begun to crop up across the Mountain West, though not yet in Jackson Hole.
The Spalding homestead, Joy and Burt conspired, was a chance to tap into this emerging industry and the still largely undiscovered beauty of the region. By all accounts, the ranch provided an ideal setting for a dude outfit: Its proximity to the Teton range allowed access into near endless backcountry for trail rides, pack-trips and hunting. The adjacent Phelps Lake and iconic Snake River to the east offered remarkable trout fishing and boating. And by running cattle during the summer months, the establishment could still offer the experience of traditional ranching activities.
In 1907, Joy and Burt opened the gates of the JY Ranch (the brand was an abbreviation of Joy’s name). Almost immediately, the business took off. Buoyed by Joy’s knowledge of ranching and Burt’s wealthy connections in the East, the JY began welcoming visitors. In its first year the ranch hosted five guests, all acquaintances of Burt, but as word of the operation spread so too did its popularity.
Over the next several years relations between Joy and Burt began to sour. Joy had promised his partner a five-year option to buy half-interest in the business, but it soon became apparent those plans were not likely to come to fruition. Frustrated, Burt severed ties with Joy in 1911 with the intention of starting his own dude ranch in the valley, which he did.
Bolstered by growing visitation to nearby Yellowstone National Park, which was established by Congress and ratified by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, the reputation of the JY Ranch continued to spread. Keeping up with the growing operations proved to be a formidable task, even for a veteran rancher like Joy. In 1916, Joy began leasing his outfit to Henry S.A. Stewart, a businessman from Pittsburg.
Under Stewart’s direction, the operation grew further. In 1920, he purchased the property from Joy and incorporated it into his adjoining land holdings, which he contracted out to raise cattle. Soon the JY Ranch was consistently operating at capacity—65 guests a stay, which was a substantially larger number than the 10 to 20 visitors most dude ranches could accommodate. The weekly $65 rate included meals, lodging, boats and saddle horses.
Stewart proved a shrewd entrepreneur. He offered guests comforts that were unusual to the area: fresh vegetables, dairy products and beef, all locally sourced. (Despite the area’s impressive cattle herds, most ranching families subsisted on elk and deer rather than dipping into their profit-makers.) Stewart launched motor tours of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons and began a general store that sold fishing licenses, camping supplies, tobacco, candy and medicine. Those conveniences soon established the JY as the area’s largest and most successful dude ranch—strong enough even to weather the Great Depression.
When the stock market collapsed in 1929, Stewart raised his rates and lowered capacity—a move that defied convention. Most dude ranches at the time were cutting costs in hopes of attracting visitors that could still afford travel. Stewart’s plan succeeded in appealing to a high-worth clientele and helped keep the business afloat through the blunt of the Depression. Even so, the economic turmoil was taking a toll and the signs of change were astir.
Controversy in Conservation
By the mid-1920s, the West had captivated the imagination of the nation. Popularized in literature and film and suddenly accessible by railroad, this once obscure frontier nearly instantaneously became the premier destination for the modern traveler. Ads appeared newspapers and magazines on both coasts, and few locations offered such natural beauty and adventure as Wyoming.
It was around this time that Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright invited John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the Standard Oil founder and one of the country’s wealthiest men, to tour the Grand Teton area. Albright’s invitation was purposeful and well-calculated. Concerned by the commercialization creeping into the region, he had been working with likeminded landowners on a plan to preserve the area’s vast natural resources. The idea hinged on persuading a conservation investor to purchase surrounding land and donate it to the government to be incorporated into the parks. As it turned out, Albright’s offer would shape the future of the region and Grand Teton National Park.
In 1926, Albright personally escorted Rockefeller around the valley and provided maps of landownership. At his behest, Rockefeller formed the Snake River Land Company, which began to surreptitiously buy up ranches, often using local agents to conceal the buyer’s identity. Many sellers thought the acquisitions were part of a plan to expand the National Elk Refuge, which had been established in 1912 to support wildlife populations.
In 1930, locals caught wind of the plan, which divided landowners. Many supported the plan to conserve the area’s rugged beauty. Others saw it as a landgrab hatched by the federal government and wealthy East Coast socialites.
Senator Robert Carey, a Wyoming Republican, told Rockefeller’s lawyer, “We are not willing to see this section of Wyoming exploited or its citizens driven out to gratify Mr. Albright’s ambition or to establish a monopoly for the benefit of Mr. Rockefeller’s agents.”
Despite opposition, which included the launch of a weekly newspaper, the Grand Teton, to rail against the expansion, the Snake River Land Co. was successful. It ultimately purchased 33,000 acres at a cost of $1.5 million—the equivalent of about $21 million today. Among the properties purchased was the JY Ranch, which Stewart sold in 1932 for $90,000.
Initially, Rockefeller’s plan to donate his company’s impressive land acquisitions to the government was thwarted by Wyoming’s congressional delegation. In 1942, he wrote Interior Secretary Harold Ickes with a threat to sell his holdings if the federal government didn’t act. That caught the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1943 used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create the Jackson Hole National Monument.
That, too, drew blowback. In 1943, local ranchers moved a herd of more than 500 cattle across the newly established monument, an act meant to defy the National Park Service. Shortly after, Congress passed a law to abolish the monument, which was vetoed by President Roosevelt. The State of Wyoming filed a motion to challenge the Antiquities Act, but it too was dismissed.
Finally, in 1950, a compromise was struck that exempted Wyoming from the Antiquities Act—ensuring a national monument could only be created in the state with Congressional approval—in return for Grand Teton National Park being expanded to incorporate the Jackson Hole National Monument. The agreement was authorized by President Harry Truman that year.
In 1949, when Rockefeller donated the land purchased through the Snake River Land Co. to the National Park, he withheld roughly 3,400 acres structured around the original JY Ranch. Adopting the JY brand, the private inholding—one of only a few within Grand Teton National Park—became something of a crown jewel for Rockefeller and his family, which would use the property as a private retreat for more than 70 years.
A Legacy as Big as the Mountains
Accessible only by a narrow gravel road and bordered by an unassuming buckrail fend, the Rockefeller’s JY Ranch lived as something of a mystery to the public. Few passed through its impressive but discrete gates, which might be missed by the unaware passerby. Yet, for nearly a quarter-century, this Camelot welcomed distinguished visitors and dignitaries, all by invitation of the Rockefeller family.
Perched atop the rim of Phelps Lake, a glacial lake formed at the base of the Tetons, the ranch painted an impressive sight: A mess hall overlooking the lake, lodges and guest cabins, horse stables and corrals, a private fishing pond, swimming pool, roping arena, boat house and miles of wilderness.
Over the years this remote retreat hosted a laundry list of eminent guests, including President and First Lady Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1995. But for the Rockefellers, an invitation to the ranch wasn’t so much a status symbol as a means to share Jackson Hole’s natural wonder.
“The JY Ranch was an august place, and the Rockefellers went to great lengths to maintain the land,” one former manager explained. “Every aspect of the ranch was meant to complement the local environment. It was obvious the family cared deeply about preserving the heritage and serenity of Jackson Hole.”
Indeed, the passion for the area’s rugged beauty seemed to have been passed down from Rockefeller to his sons, Laurance and David, who continued to run the ranch after his death. Between 1969 and 1983, Laurance transferred approximately 2,300 acres of the JY Ranch into Grand Teton National Park. In 2001, then 91 years old, Laurance announced he would donate the remaining 1,106 acres to the National Park. The transfer was completed in 2007, which put the final private Rockefeller ownership of the ranch into public land.
Today, the more than 1,100 acres of the JY Ranch are enshrined in the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, a popular destination within Grand Teton National Park. The ranch structures have been relocated, many into Park service. At the time of the transfer, Rockefeller explained that he hoped the project would offer a model for public-private partnerships to preserve the country’s open spaces.
Perhaps no other property better embodies the long history and dynamism of Jackson Hole than the JY Ranch. The valley’s culture and heritage seem to permeate the very soil. Now enshrined for generations to come, it would be hard to think of a more fitting coda to the property’s storied legacy than its return to public ownership.