Matthew K. Heiss 12.1.2019

Bio: Volunteer 2013-14, 
Descriptor: Being an oral historian at the Reunion in 2014

Matthew’s Story:

White Grass in My Life – Unfortunately, I was never a dude or a wrangler at White Grass. I was never there when it was an operating dude ranch. I never got to meet Frank Galey. But because of the documentation work I did at the White Grass Reunion in 2014, I now have memories of a place and a time which were not my own, but which I’ve somewhat adopted as my own.

White Grass is an amazing place. One of the former cabin girls told me that she had been told that the meadow in front of the cabins had once been considered sacred by Native Americans. It felt that way when I was first there. It still feels that way. There is something historic and healing in that area that touches me every time I am there.

I was fortunate to be asked to assist in the White Grass Heritage Project, Roger Butterbaugh’s (Coordinator of the White Grass Heritage Project) inspired idea to capture the history of one of Jackson Hole’s most charismatic men, Frank Galey, and Frank’s dude ranch – White Grass.

How It All Began – My journal for 8 September 2013 reads: “…went to White Grass Dude ranch + we may have gotten involved in a voluntary oral history project about the ranch.”

The day before, I had ridden in the LoToJa Classic, a bike race from Logan, Utah, to Jackson, Wyoming – hence Lo for Logan, To for to, Ja for Jackson. It is an annual and epic 207-mile ride that I am grateful to have survived. That year, Bill Slaughter (“Biking Buddy Bill”) and I were slated to ride a 2-man relay, but he hurt his back the morning of the race, so I was privileged to ride the entire race solo.

Every year after the LoToJa, Bill and I and our wives spend a few days in the Jackson area enjoying the park and the area. 2013 was no exception. That Sunday afternoon, we all piled into Bill’s car and went into Grand Teton National Park.

Bill likes to explore. I’d rather go to some known site and hike. But he was driving, so I was somewhat a captive in his car. We went up Death Canyon to Black George’s cabin. We’d read about Black George giving out root beer floats to all hikers. He was not there when we arrived.

On the way down, Bill said, “Let’s go check out White Grass.” The year before, Bill’s son had gone out to White Grass and seen some of the cabins in various states of rehabilitation.

I had absolutely no interest in seeing an old dude ranch, but I went along – simply to keep the peace. Our wives stayed in the car.

We walked up to one of the cabins and looked in the windows, and there were Roger Butterbaugh, the seasonal caretaker, and Judy Schmitt, a former White Grass dude and wrangler. I felt like we were trespassing and I wanted to go. But friendly Bill invited himself into the cabin and stated talking to Judy and Roger, both of whom were very friendly and did not make us feel like trespassers.

Long story short: Roger started to talk about his plans to document the history of White Grass, and out of the blue Bill said, “Matt does a lot of oral history. He and I could help.”

That is how it all began!

We exchanged e-mail addresses and Skype addresses, and over the next year, we devised ways to support Roger and bring his dream into reality. We met in several videoconference sessions to plan out what we would do during the 2014 reunion. In June before the reunion, Bill and I made a trip to White Grass to do some training in oral history and to work out some of the logistics. And then the reunion happened!

An Amazing Week –

On 5-7 September 2014, former “White Grassers” (dudes, wranglers, other staff members), as well as National Park Service staff, gathered at the ranch for a reunion. The “Heritage Project Team” was there to document the several facets of the White Grass experience through oral history, video history, and the acquisition of photographs, written records, and other memorabilia.

Volunteers: The amazingly impressive White Grass Heritage Project Team consisted of the following:

    • Roger Butterbaugh, seasonal White Grass caretaker and Coordinator of the Heritage Project
    • Harriet Butterbaugh, support staff
    • William W. Slaughter (Biking Buddy Bill), photograph curator
    • Sheri Slaughter, team genealogist
    • Matthew K. Heiss, oral historian
    • Becky Heiss, assistant oral historian
    • Brittany Chapman, photograph curator
    • Emily Utt, historic structure preservation specialist
    • Samantha Ford, photo scanner from the Jackson Hole Historical Society andMuseum and National Park Service
    • Sharon Kahin, director of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum
    • Richard Lander, video editing

The Results:

  • Over 2100 photographs were acquired and/or scanned for preservation
  • Over 43 hours of oral history was recorded with 29 former White Grassers and 10 National Park Service personnel and Heritage Project staff

Two Reunion events were filmed:

  • The trip to the former White Grass barn, now located in Wilson, Wyoming
  • The tribute to Frank Galey evening (Galey was the last and most legendary owner of White Grass) All interviews, video footage, and scanned documents were described, organized, and cataloged for discoverability. I believe the records and interviews acquired during this weekend represent a good beginning of the White Grass Collection archives at the Grand Teton National Park Archives, at the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, or posted on the White Grass Heritage site. The list of interviews recorded around the time of the reunion is impressive (if I may toot the Team’s own horn for a bit).


Note:  In Memoriam: Beth Wooden, Bob Dellenback, Rachel Trahern, and Ann Cuddy – all passed away after the reunion, but their stories are still alive in the White Grass archives.

Conclusion: Gratitude and Finding Meaning in the Experience – This was such an enjoyable experience that I felt, and still feel, a profound gratitude to all who helped to make it possible:

  • The White Grassers, who allowed us to capture glimpses of their lives, which made the history come alive
  • The reunion organizers (in particular Rachel Trahern), who allowed us to be part of a significant historical event and who gave us unlimited access to all people and activities
  • The National Park Service, for allowing the team to reside at White Grass during reunion week
  • The Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, for making equipment available, as well as for Samantha’s efforts to scan hundreds of photographs, and Sharon Kahin’s participation in one of the key oral histories (Cindy Galey Peck, daughter of Frank and Inge Galey)
  • Richard Lander (my friend), a volunteer from Alberta, Canada, whose video expertise has been a blessing to this project
  • “Biking Buddy Bill” for getting me roped into this amazing experience
  • My wife Becky for being an awesome partner during the interviews, and whose love of White Grass made this work a joy
  • The Redd Center at Brigham Young University for providing a $1500 grant that allowed the team to do this work
  • And most especially, Roger Butterbaugh, without whose vision this would have never been possible – a true friend! Meaning – the feeling of family: During many of the interviews, I had a feeling that White Grass was something like an extended family. People returned year after year, renewing relationships, which have been maintained throughout the passing decades. Like all families, there were hard times. People made mistakes and did hurtful things. Nonetheless, there was a feeling of belonging. And the setting seems to reinforce the power of belonging. It is belonging to the White Grass family, but also belonging to a sacred landscape that is charged with something. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ insight here seems to be an appropriate description of White Grass – “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” from the poem  “God’s Grandeur.”

At the end of the Frank Galey Night, Rachel Trahern gave each of us who helped with the documentation project two modest tokens of appreciation: A small glass plaque with the White Grass brand on it (which I keep in my office and which I see every day), and a bumper sticker with the White Grass brand. The very next day, I put the bumper sticker on the back of our van, so pleased that I had been “somewhat” adopted into the White Grass family.

Appendix – Jackson Hole News & Guide Newspaper Article Regarding the Reunion 10 September 2014, written by Frances Moody

Deborah Lopez remembers the first summer she spent at White Grass Ranch in Grand Teton National Park. The year was 1959 and she was 7, going on 8.

“It was the most magical place in my life,” she said. “When I was 7, we were bouncing along Teton Village Road in the back of a station wagon. I remember an inner voice said to me, ‘This is your home.’”

Years passed and the memories of that time came flooding back when Lopez was in Kuwait watching television and the station interrupted the programming for the Islamic call to prayer.

During intermission the TV flashed what Lopez called “heavenly images,” and one of the pictures that popped up was of the Tetons. At that moment the 20-something-year-old knew what her call to prayer was: Lopez knew she had to return to the dude ranch. From then on she spent most of her summer vacations at the ranch until it closed in 1985.

Lopez’s story is similar to the other dude ranchers who returned this weekend for a White Grass Ranch reunion. For the three-day celebration, Lopez and about 75 other people shared stories over picnics, dinners and campfires. There was a recurring theme as the visitors recalled their time at the White Grass: There was something about the place and its setting that brought back the same people year after year, both guests and employees.

Homesteaded in 1913, White Grass Ranch began herding dudes instead of cows in 1919.

“It was the longest operating dude ranch in the valley,” said Katherine Wonson, cultural resources specialist for Grand Teton National Park.

Twenty-nine years have passed since White Grass Ranch shut down, but the area keeps pulling people back. It may not be a ranch any more, but park employees are working to preserve its history — a history that ended with the death of Frank Galey, the last person to own and operate the ranch.

Galey owned the place till 1956, when he sold it to the National Park Service. But under the terms of a life lease he was able to stay on the property until his death in 1985.

No longer a ranch, the land now acts as a historical preservation hub. Tucked away in a small room in the main cabin is an office. Hidden in the office are recorded interviews and shared memories of White Grass Ranch’s past employees and visitors.

This weekend for the 101st anniversary of the place’s homesteading, reunion attendees added to that pile of records. Former White Grass Ranch employee Fred Herbel summoned some memories.

“I found my wife here,” he said. “She was a kids wrangler here. We got connected at the ranch. We got married and had a reception right here.”

Jackson resident Dine Dellenback also explained what the place meant to her and her family. She brought up something her youngest daughter, Martha, always talks about.

Dellenback said the ranch used to have a dump that attracted bears. Every day after dinner, kids would go to the dump in hope of spotting a bear. Dellenback asked Martha, who was 3 years old at the time, to stay with the adults, but she didn’t listen.

“She ended up going down there. One day a bear was there, probably not interested in her, but interested in the food in the dump. She will never forget that the others ran off and left her all by herself.”

While accounts of the past were a main part of the reunion, park employees were able to share White Grass Ranch’s present purpose. They did so Friday afternoon with a series of speeches by park employees and former White Grass Ranch employees.

The plans shared at Friday’s event started in 2005 when Grand Teton National Park and the National Trust for Historic Preservation decided to raise money to restore the ranch’s historical cabins.

Still a work-in-progress, the partnership has raised more than $950,000 and has turned the ranch into the Western Center for Historic Preservation.

“What we do here is bring in trainees from all over the Park Service and from other agencies,” Wonson said. “We train them in traditional home building and preservation skills. In addition, we are able to use the building we are working on as training opportunities.”

From documenting the ranch’s stories to preserving its buildings, Grand Teton National Park proved to reunion goers that history is embedded in White Grass Ranch’s roots.