Wrangling the Western Metaphor: Charles Belden’s Wyoming Imagery

Reaching the Pitchfork Ranch in the 1920s wasn’t easy. In fact, it was arduous. Imagine yourself on the trek. After transferring at the Billings, Montana, branch line to the end of the rails in Cody, Wyoming, a light horse-drawn stage drives you over rutted dirt roads to Meeteetse, a little town some forty miles to the southeast. The delights of Meeteetse entail a hotel room shared with two to three other guests, a barber shop with a wood burning stove boiling hot water for the town’s only public bathtub, a disreputable Chinese short order diner serving the worst food for miles around, a general store, a lively saloon and another one not so spirited, and a livery stable.1 After a look around town and a greasy lunch, you find yourself keen to continue your trip to the Pitchfork Dude Ranch, not anticipating another journey of twenty-five miles on a flimsy two-horse wagon over even more eroded roads to get there.

Street scene in Meeteetse, ca. 1920. The building located front and center is the Pioneer Pharmacy, which began operations at this site in 1919. The building is now home to the Belden Museum. Charles J. Belden Photographs, Collection No. 598, Box 12, Item 1327, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

A bit worse for wear, you arrive at the Pitchfork’s guest quarters. After brushing off the road dust, you are escorted to an inviting canvas deck chair and offered a drink by the ranch manager, a trim man named Charley who is wearing a rather outsized beaver Stetson hat. Charley takes his leave, and you now notice the intense quiet of the remote location while taking in a breathtaking view of the Absaroka Range. The travails of the journey fall away as you settle into your comfortable chair dreaming of the next day’s pack trip somewhere on the Pitchfork’s 240,000 acres in the scenic Greybull River Valley. The western experience awaits with a chance to interact with real-live cowboys who you know from movies and magazines spend a romantic life trailing cattle through gorgeous grassy meadows, singing western ditties by the campfire, and curling up for the night beneath a starlit sky.

Many of the elements of the picturesque West of the imagination are visible in this staged photograph taken at the Pitchfork Ranch. Charles J. Belden Photographs, Collection No. 598, Box 10, Item 1012, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

You knew the Pitchfork Dude Ranch was the place to experience the real West because you had heard so much about it. How could you not? It was advertised in all the leading magazines and newspapers of the day. This ranch’s popularity was the result of one man, and you already knew his name. Charles Belden.

Dude ranching had existed at the Pitchfork since the early 1900s, but it was Charles Belden who made the ranch famous. Belden had married into the Pitchfork family in 1912. When his father-in-law died in 1922, he became co-owner of the ranch with his brother-in-law. Inheritance taxes took a large bite from the ranch proceeds and extra cash was desperately needed. This is where Belden found his niche. Being neat, personable, articulate, and well-educated, he was good at marketing the ranch to potential guests. He made many trips by air, car, and railroad to encourage Eastern visitors to visit the Pitchfork. While on these trips, he used his passion for photography to promote the ranch as the best place for an authentic western experience.2

Belden understood the fascination for the Rocky Mountain West and the sentimentality Americans felt for their homespun beginnings, which lived on in western ranch life. The secret to his success in photography was his intimacy with the western theme; he had a great advantage in living with his subject matter and thoroughly understanding every detail of it. The pictures he took of the Pitchfork for many newspapers in Los Angeles, Denver, Billings, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, New York and for magazines such as National Geographic, Life Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post made the Pitchfork Dude Ranch renowned.

Charles Belden knew how to please his Eastern audiences. His keen sense of drama and design comes through, even when photographing himself. He’s holding a large-format (4×5) but portable Zeiss Minimum Palmos camera. Charles J. Belden Photographs, Collection No. 598, Box 5, Item 1, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Like dime novels westerns, Belden’s most famous images did not depict the everyday life of the working ranch hand as much as they did the romance of a cook fire sing-along on the range, a picturesque pond with a cowboy taking a drink using his wide-brim hat, or lighting up a cigarette in a setting right out of a Marlborough cigarette ad. Belden recognized that these were the scenes Eastern and foreign visitors expected at a western ranch, and he knew these images would sell magazine copy and attract dudes.

Belden employed this motif of everyday ranch life a number of times in his photography.
Charles J. Belden Photographs, Collection No. 598, Box 8, Item 578, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Belden’s photography was so iconic of the West that advertisers sought him out. His photographs were used for Solitaire coffee ads (such as this photo), cigarette ads, restaurant menus, and other commercial ventures. According to his daughter Lili, Belden became so famous that the post office delivered a letter to him addressed only with a drawing of a man behind a camera wearing a cowboy hat next to a pitchfork with the word “Wyoming.” This delivery was noted on Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Charles J. Belden Photographs, Collection No. 598, Box 7, Item 405, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Yet Belden’s imagery of the Pitchfork and surrounding area did not just concentrate on western fables. He was also interested in capturing the West of the 1920s and 1930s as a place caught between the old and the new. Often, he juxtaposed symbols representing the new and old such as a horse-drawn wagon meeting an automobile at a crossroad, a sheepherder holding a Scientific American magazine while listening to a battery-powered radio, a cowboy on horseback looking up at a low-flying plane.

Example of Belden juxtaposing the West of the past with the West of the future. Charles J. Belden Photographs, Collection No. 598, Box 8, Item 598, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

By the 1930s, the Pitchfork Ranch and Charles Belden were as famous as any of the celebrities of the day. Dudes were frequently arriving during the summer and early fall at the ranch. Wyoming’s tourism industry in general had grown rapidly after World War I as thousands of tourists could hop into automobiles and travel on increasingly better roads to western destinations.3 Belden’s photographs assisted Wyoming promoters in its self-identification as the “Cowboy State.” Wyoming towns, large and small, exploited the romantic western image to attract visitors eager to experience the “last frontier” as Wyoming billed itself.4 Dude ranches, such as the Pitchfork, jumped on the bandwagon by plying prospective guests with an increasing amount of magazine ads and colorful brochures that emphasized the sublime western experience. Ease of travel to the ranches by rail was promoted by northern U.S. railroad company brochures, particularly the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, known as the Burlington Route. Belden photographs were frequently used by the Burlington Route to illustrate the delights awaiting the Eastern or overseas visitor.5

The dude ranch experience was advertised as fun for all ages, whether you were a dude or a dudine. Charles J. Belden Photographs, Collection No. 598, Box 8, Item 543, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Despite incoming dude dollars, mismanagement of the Pitchfork as well as problems caused by the deepening Depression were enough to cause the ranch to go into receivership. Additionally, other family members resented the time and expense involved with Belden’s photography and lecture tours.6 In 1940, Belden left the ranch and moved to Florida with a new wife. His daughter Annice and her husband Doug began the task of operating the guest ranch and kept it open until World War II involved the United States. The doors were closed for five years and then reopened in 1946 for about only one year before closing permanently.7

Although Belden left the West and dude ranching permanently, he still identified with the western mystique through his dress and mannerisms. He continued to market his Pitchfork Ranch images, although he did not retain ownership of any of the ranch property. His images brought about by his experiences as a rancher and dude-wrangler have become part of the reality and the fantasy of western ranch life.

Belden left the ranch while in his fifties and moved to Florida with a new wife, Verna Stouffer Belden. Now billing himself as “Seahorse Charlie Belden,” he continued his photographic career with a change in scenery to beaches and bathing beauties. This photo by Jack Richard is held in the Belden collection at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

To see more of the Belden photographs at the American Heritage Collection, check out the digitized collection at https://digitalcollections.uwyo.edu/luna/servlet/uwydbuwy~23~23.

Post submitted by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.



  1. Morton, Charles W. Memoir. Charles W. Morton Papers, Accession #1790, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, p. 38.
  2. Edgar, Bob and Jack Turnell. Brand of a Legend. Cody, WY: Stockade Publishing, 1978, p. 163.
  3. Ewig, Rick. “Give Them What They Want: The Selling of Wyoming’s Image Between the World Wars,” Readings in Wyoming History. Ed. Phil Roberts. Laramie, WY: Skyline Press, 2000, p. 45.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Brochures published by the Burlington Route such as Dude Ranches in the Big Horn Mountains (1929 and 1930), Dude Ranches in Wyoming and Montana (1938 and 1946) and Western Dude Ranches in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana (1959) included photographs by Charles J. Belden.
  6. Edgar and Turnell, pp. 122-123.
  7. Edgar and Turnell, p. 163.
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