December 28, 2017

Court DuRand’s “Wild Game Water Rodeo”

by Kelly Burton, Film Archivist

While Montana’s guest ranches have long explored ways to distinguish themselves from the competition, it would be difficult for anyone to best the Big Elk Ranch, circa 1930, when it comes to sheer outrageousness and hucksterism. The proprietor of the Big Elk, Courtland Eugene DuRand, was born in Minneapolis in 1877. His parents filed a claim on Trail Creek in 1892, and the DuRands soon moved their six children to the foothills of the Little Belt Mountains north of present-day Checkerboard, Montana. Young Court helped to build the family cattle ranch, the N Lazy I, before going off to study engineering at Princeton University. After graduation, DuRand returned to the 2100-acre ranch to assist neighbors with irrigation systems and stock management, and then traveled the world as a supervisor of overseas prospects for a mining conglomerate. He increasingly visited Montana after the death of his father in 1910, and permanently settled on the family property in the early 1920s.

Letter from Roosevelt to DuRand, 1927. 
(MHS vertical file, Courtland DuRand)
Promotional materials for the Wild Elk Range of Montana. 
(MHS vertical file, Courtland DuRand)





















The DuRand Ranch Company was incorporated in 1921, but the falling beef prices of the mid-1920s led Court to consider two business options: opening a dude ranch, and domesticating wild animals for breeding and commercial sale as meat. In late 1927, the Bureau of Biological Survey sold him seventy-four cow and calf elk, twelve bull elk, fourteen bison, two mountain goats, several sheep, some black-tail deer, and one dozen antelope. Originally started as a common-law trust bearing the name “Wild Elk Range of Montana,” the moniker was soon changed to Big Elk Ranch in 1929. The premier attraction of the ranch soon became the “Wild Game Water Rodeo,” which featured domesticated elk and bison plummeting from a 40-foot platform into an artificial pool below. The dude ranch ran to near-capacity from June to November for several years, but the 1930s economic depression eventually decreased the market for exotic meats and leisure activities. DuRand kept his trained animals in the spotlight, however, and they continued to appear in various Montana parades, sports shows in Cleveland and Chicago, the New York World’s Fair, and even a bison diving show on New Jersey’s Steel Pier.

The Wild Game Water Rodeo. 
(MHS Photo Archives, PAc 83-48)
The Wild Game Water Rodeo. 
(MHS Photo Archives, PAc 83-48)













With the Wild Elk Range of Montana, Court maintained that what he was creating was: “an experiment station for the study of elk and other animals…the first venture of its kind in the United States. I am a firm believer that domesticated elk will someday find a place on the American menu. These animals can be raised to provide more meat than any other animal, for the comparable amount of food.” [1] Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s name graces the promotional materials for the Wild Elk Range as a member of the organization’s Advisory Committee, and a letter of support from the former president speaks to the enthusiasm that DuRand was able to generate for his unique Montana endeavor. The naturalist slant presented by the Wild Elk Range soon becomes sensationalized with the introduction of the Big Elk Ranch theatrics, however: “A diving platform, water corrals, and fish-hook chutes have been constructed, from which buffalo, elk, and horses dove into 15 feet of water. Dudes were able to catch the buffalo and elk and ride on their backs across the lake. One elk was lassoed, and it pulled a row boat with two passengers. Fox Movietone men have taken moving pictures of the aquatic rodeo for international distribution.” [2]

The Wild Game Water Rodeo. 
(MHS Photo Archives, PAc 83-48)
The Wild Game Water Rodeo. 
(MHS Photo Archives, PAc 83-48)














A print of this Movietone newsreel was loaned to the Montana Historical Society in 1983, and new 16mm positive and negative prints were struck at that time. The newsreel inevitably emphasizes the sensational elements of DuRand’s endeavor, and the first images are of both elk and bison tumbling from the top of a 40-foot-high chute into the water below. A boy in a small rowboat is then pulled around the diving pool by an elk on a lead. Bison and elk herds are seen running around enclosures and jumping fences at high speeds, driven by two Big Elk Ranch hands on horseback. Returning to the pool, we see herds of elk and bison swimming through the water in a somewhat synchronized fashion. Next, a woman stands at the bow of a small boat, holding a rope that is tied to a swimming elk. The elk has balloons tied to its antlers and is, of course, towing the small boat and its passengers in circles around the pool. Diving elk and bison are the focus of the remainder of the film, though now we see young ranch guests diving in after the animals to catch a ride to shore. A row of boards has been set up near the water’s edge for human divers, and we witness a group of young boys plunging into the water to ride atop the swimming bison herd.

The Wild Game Water Rodeo. 
(MHS Photo Archives, PAc 83-48)
The Wild Game Water Rodeo. 
(MHS Photo Archives, PAc 83-48)














World War II and a 1943 fire at the central lodge finally put an end to Court’s dude ranch enterprise, and the DuRands soon returned to cultivating cattle and crops on the family land. In 1951, Court was gored in the stomach by a bull elk he had raised from birth (an injury from which he never fully recovered), and subsequently suffered a stroke and lost his sight. The family auctioned off the livestock herds at Lewistown’s Central Montana Stock Yards, and eventually sold the Trail Creek property in 1952. At the time of his death in 1955, Courtland DuRand was lovingly eulogized as “one of Montana’s most colorful and progressive citizens.” [3]

[1] Meagher Republican, February 3, 1928.
[2] Meagher County News, August 26, 1936.
[3] Biographical information has been largely summarized from “Courtland DuRand Wrangles the Dudes…and the Elk…and the Bison...and the Antelope…and the Deer,” Montana Magazine, July/August 1999, 88-95.

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