Making it Work: Dude Ranch Bucks Housing Shortage

The R Lazy S Dude Ranch workers enjoy the Jackson outdoors with free housing

Kelly Stirn, pictured left, is saddled next to his son, Will. Kelly has owned the R Lazy S Ranch since 2012 and managed it with his wife, Nancy, since 1997. (Courtesy Photo)

By Madeline Thulin

Special to the Wyoming Truth

At 23 years old, Ragan Freeburg came to the conclusion that she “wanted something different.”

For her, different arrived in the form of the 325-acre R Lazy S Dude Ranch just outside the town limits of Jackson.  

The tranquil atmosphere of the expansive green fields which border the Grand Teton National Park to the west only changes when it reached the swiftly flowing Snake River on the east boundary of the ranch. Sixty horses roam the natural expanse when they are not being ridden by guests who pay to participate in the full western experience, including horseback riding, while being lodged in traditional log cabins and fed gourmet food daily.

Ragan Freeburg worked seasonally at the R Lazy S Ranch for a decade. She lived in an historic cabin and fell in love with Jackson. (Courtesy Photo)

The guests, by the way, are not the only ones reveling in the delights of the majestic and wild outdoors. As a ranch employee, Ragan lived in a unique, historical cabin on site. This employee housing, which is offered to all of the crew members, presents for some an enticing way to afford Jackson and immerse in the western spirit.

“The horseback riding in the mountains called me,” Ragan says. “The ranch satisfied this necessity…[and allowed me] to work outside and with other people. I fell in love with the town and all it could be.”

The natural splendor of Jackson, of course, attracts people from all walks of life, but the extravagant cost of living and limited housing allows only a small number to set down roots. A division between class and wealth permeates the valley, begetting the question: Is this the type of community Jacksonites want to call home?

The R Lazy S Ranch offers one way to bridge that divide. It will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year. Originally on Grand Teton National Park land, the ranch’s lease with the park was ending in the early 1970s and the ranch land was slowly flooding. The parents of Kelly Stirn, the owner of R Lazy S Ranch, had stayed at the R Lazy S Ranch during the summers when Kelly was a child and attended the Teton Valley Ranch Camp in the 1960s. Kelly remembered he had “slowly but surely fallen in love with horse-riding” at the camp, while his parents had “fallen in love with the area.” 

So they bought the ranch in 1973. Ten years earlier, Kelly’s grandfather had purchased the Aspen M Ranch in Jackson. The family combined their Jackson property and moved the R Lazy S Ranch onto the former Aspen M Ranch. Kelly and his wife, Nancy became directors of the ranch in 1997 and full owners in 2012. 

Employees are housed on the extensive property in 13 historic cabins, many of which have been relocated from the Grand Teton National Park. The five-day work week allows crewmembers to spend their two days off enjoying the same benefits of the dude ranch that guests enjoy: nature, a simpler life and a chance to experience the Wild West.

There are about 30 full-time ranch positions, including chefs, servers, housekeepers, maintenance, wranglers and a manager.  This year “almost 100% of the wranglers and maintenance will return,” Kelly says. Overall, about 75%-80% of the staff returns each year, he says. Guests return to the ranch at about the same remarkable rate.

It is, “so easy to say yes [to another season at R Lazy S] because there is such a community when you are hired on the ranch,” Ragan says. “…I met my core friends on the ranch. When you move onto the ranch, there are insta-friends who want to go explore…and be active. It’s like summer camp except you have a split-shift.”

The main drawback for crew members? The positions are seasonal. Crew members work from the beginning of May through the second week of October, earning what Kelly says is a competitive rate for the dude ranch business. If they want to remain in Jackson, they need to find alternative housing between October and the upcoming May. “Many stay and end up working in a variety of vocations ranging from law to health care,” Kelly says.

In the off-season, Ragan teaches at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort as a ski instructor. Occasionally, she says, “I would use the off-season to travel because it was cheaper to travel than to pay rent [in Jackson]. I would use the money from the dude ranch and…save as much as I could. I was able to save quite a bit because the housing and food [at the dude ranch] were provided for me.”

When crewmembers return to the R Lazy S Ranch in the summer, they also work to preserve the legacy of the old west. “The R Lazy S Ranch is a historical dude ranch and, history-wise, dude ranches are what brought tourists to Wyoming in the early days,” Kelly says. “Most of the people were from the East Coast. In the early days, you needed a letter of recommendation to come to a dude ranch…Dude ranches have a really long history with Wyoming…We are trying to keep the tradition going.”

Regular guests receive fancy Western cowboy belt buckles as a symbol of their commitment to the legacy of the Wild West, untainted nature and the lifestyle of a less complex time.

Ragan owns one of those buckles and lives in Jackson with her husband and two small children. After a decade at the ranch, she says her family is “rooted here.”

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