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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004) 165-171

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Romancing the West

Photographs by Marion Post Wolcott

Romance has many meanings. In late summer 1941, when Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Marion Post Wolcott visited a dude ranch in southeastern Montana, she made a series of photos that symbolize Americans' love affair with the West and captured the many connotations of romance. More than any other New Deal photographer, Wolcott depicted women outside of the FSA's typical representations of weathered farm wives and careworn mothers.

By 1941 the worst days of the Great Depression were over, and Wolcott had been charged with photographing the recovery of the western cattle industry. The Quarter Circle U ranch in Birney, Montana, like many others in the region, had begun entertaining dudes in the 1920s to augment ranch income, and so she photographed that side of the modern ranch business as well as cattle raising. The ranch scattered its grounds with covered wagon love seats designed for trysting young couples, many of whom purchased western wear as part of their Montana adventure. In 1936Vogue magazine had run an article advising its readers on how to dress for a dude ranch vacation, suggesting that travelers purchase Levis, "the copper-riveted narrow blue denims that you can buy anywhere in the West or in New York at Best and Altman's," along with a silk neckerchief and western boots.

The West was not only a place in which to have a romance, but a place in which romantic characters dwelt. It seemed to be a land where the mysterious past met the modern present. Tourists, driving late model cars, shared the road with moccasin-clad Indians driving wagons. Wranglers, who traditionally took care of cattle and horses, shepherded tourists through a variety of western activities—dressed-up and watered-down versions of ranch work, which had acquired a romantic gloss as the urban world eclipsed the rural. Wolcott accompanied the dudes on their outings, which included visits to the rodeo in Ashland and to the annual Crow Fair. In the final photograph she shows one [End Page 165] way in which whites and Indians interacted in the mid-twentieth century, as spectators at the Crow Fair, an annual event where Crow people came together to dance, race horses, and perform in a rodeo. And where everyone dressed up—eastern dudes in their tooled boots and stiff jeans, Indian women in their best shawls and moccasins, young Indian girls in calico dresses and saddleshoes—all were participants in what had become a western spectacle, as well as a tribal celebration.

Wolcott, too, was a tourist to the West. Her photographs remind us that romance can also mean a fictitious tale: They capture a sliver of time, and we are left to imagine what took place in the moments before and after these frozen seconds or what scenes lay beyond the edges of her frames. If Wolcott's photographs make us see the Depression decade in a more complicated way, if they make us wonder about the lives of two Cheyenne women or about what secrets a young couple shared on the hard bench of a corny love seat, then romance has opened the way to empathy with the peoples of our past. [End Page 166]

Figure 1
Dudes in a covered wagon seat, Quarter Circle U Ranch, Birney, Montana, August1 941. (Reprinted courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
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Figure 2
Dude perched on a new Buick, Ashland, Montana, September 1941. (Reprinted courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
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Figure 3
Indians going to Crow Fair, vicinity of Crow Agency, Montana, September 1941. (Reprinted courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
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Figure 4
Two Cheyenne Indian women near Lame Deer, Montana, August 1941. (Reprinted courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
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Figure 5
Spectators at Crow Fair, Crow Agency, Montana, September 1941. (Reprinted courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Mary Murphy is a professor of history at Montana State University, Bozeman, where...