Highfalutin John Dodge was an unforgettable character

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – What’s in a name? History, and a sticky fascination for it, is sometimes no further from one’s reach than a pondering question: Why is it called that?

Take the toney John Dodge subdivision off Teton Village Road, for example. How many people buying and selling and occasionally living in the subdivision actually know the man behind the name?

For starters, “Uncle” John Dodge was, by most accounts, flat out nuts. Especially in his later years. Oh, sure, it’s no longer politically correct to say such, but ‘crazy’ is relative. Dodge certainly stood out as an odd character in a valley that seemingly attracted nothing but the eccentric—misfits, loners, independent types who had their own way of doing things.

In fact, one has to wonder, after hearing the real story, whether Dodge didn’t have it right all along when he uttered the most famous line attributed to him: “What’s the difference? It’s all got to be plowed.”

Promising burnout

John L. Dodge was born into one of America’s most notable families in Council Bluffs, Iowa on December 12, 1867. His father Nathan was a realtor. He had an uncle big in the Union Pacific Railroad.

Dodge attended Harvard Law School where he had reportedly been number 2 in his class. He excelled scholastically and athletically. He was a lab assistant to the venerable psychologist Williams James. He was selected by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to be one of his summer law clerks. He served with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish American War in 1898.

John Dodge was a man going places. Until his nervous breakdown. That’s what they called it back then. Maybe they still do. Whatever it was—severe depression, anxiety, or acute stress disorder; perhaps even PTSD from the war—Dodge went off the deep end.

Finding peace of mind

He was sent out west to recover. What better place to restore mind and body than Jackson Hole, eh? He may never have ‘recovered,’ but he got his mind right.

Dodge took to the valley with a new passion. In 1905, he homesteaded a spread he named Wilderness Ranch. It was an idyllic place on the west side of the Snake River about five miles north of the Wilson Bridge. But at times, in the early 20th Century, it was every bit wilderness.

Situated in a low-lying floodplain, Dodge’s place was wiped out several times, including a Jackson dam break in 1908 and the Kelly flood of 1927. These floods would wreak havoc on Wilderness Ranch and leave it strewn with river rock and debris.

Dodge never had to worry about money. A “remittance man,” he received regular checks from family back east. Perhaps this was the reason he was never in a hurry to do anything.

By appearances, Dodge was more interested in keeping up with current affairs and worldwide matters (he was a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines), playing his flute, or reading poetry to his beloved mules than he was in practical matters like keeping a fire stoked during the cold winters.

Dodge’s famed method of tending to the fire was to simply feed a long rail of pine through his window or an open door and on into the woodstove as it burned down. This method saved him a lot of sawing and bucking and chopping and splitting wood. Once in a while he caught his place on fire but managed to put it out fairly quickly.

And take his plowing methods. Many a time Dodge was seen by neighbors clucking to a pair of the ugliest, humpbacked mules ever seen in Wyoming. And Hobo and Bobo were one of two pairs of humped mules Dodge kept around for company and fieldwork. There was also Lobo and Bess.

Dodge would settle into the seat of his sulky plow, absorbed in the latest issue of Variety or last week’s newspaper, lines laying at his feet, slack. When perplexed neighbors stopped to offer advice, Dodge was quick with the method for his madness.

“Why don’t you keep those mules in a straight line?” friends and neighbors would ask.

“What’s the difference?” Dodge would retort, “It all has to be plowed, anyway.”

Jack Huyler remembers it slightly different in his book, And That’s the Way It Was. His dad Coulter would ask Dodge if he didn’t think plowing would go a bit faster if the mules were made to walk straight lines.

“Yes, Coulter, it probably would. But that way I wouldn’t get my reading done,” Dodge answered. “Anyways, if I keep ‘em moving, they’ll get to it all sooner or later.”

One reason for Dodge’s odd behavior may be explained by an excerpt in Esther B. Allen’s exhaustive treatise on the history of the National Forest compiled in 1973.

“John L. Dodge, known locally as Locky Dodge, was related to the Dodge Motor people. He was another ‘Remittance Man’ who was an outcast from his family, perhaps because he had been struck on the head during a fight and had lost most of his memory. He was a champion pugilist at one time and had been injured in a fight against another champion,” a passage read.

Dodge-isms

The early 1900s just would not have been the same without John Dodge to spruce them up. The eccentric, eclectic man was hard to pigeon hole, that’s for sure. He raised bucking horses. His Desert King, a buckskin gelding, was the star saddle bronc attraction at the rodeo for years.

And Dodge rode roughstock as well. He was a sight. His ubiquitous long white duster flapping in the breeze, a beat-up fedora instead of a cowboy hat. He would ride broncs ‘til the age of 60. When asked why he kept at it, he answered, “The glory of a thousand eyes on me.”

There were so many tales attributed to Dodge in those days. Some true, some half-true, and some that just seemed to fit the old coot.

There was the time Dodge wrestled a black bear to get it out of his cabin, or raised two coyote pups by paying a young Lawrence Cheney to shoot him jackrabbits for 20 cents a day so they could eat. He built an unsinkable boat out of ironwood from South America that promptly sank, and he was once a brief one-night-only star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Omaha.

Dodge was also an admirer of silent film star Mary Miles Minter who was once in Jackson Hole to film The Cowboy and the Lady, opposite Tom Mix. Dodge convinced Minter to visit his place in Wilderness. He picked her up in his little surrey with the fringe on top (yes, he had one long before Oklahoma!).

In his later years, Dodge was a sight to see. Stooped and leaning heavily on a walking stick, he was often unkempt in the same unwashed tatters for clothes that he simply pulled on over his pajamas. Still, he would hold court on the front porch of Hungry Jacks General Store sipping a sarsaparilla, sitting leisurely in the soda fountain chair.

After moving into the town of Wilson, Dodge eventually returned to Council Bluffs when too old to care for himself. He died at the age of 90. The Dodge place was deeded to the State of Wyoming by his nephew Hunter and eventually became the C Bar V School/Ranch.

Johnny on the spot

Two final stories sum of the man of intrigue quite well. They may help explain what kind of ‘different’ Dodge was.

For years, Dodge participated in the races at the Frontier Celebration Rodeo in Wilson. In the stagecoach race he would always finish dead last. Same for the cow pony free-for-all.

In her book, This Was Jackson’s Hole, Fern Nelson recalls the time as a young teen she entered the race and placed just in front of Dodge—second to last. She was heartbroken, embarrassed, and on the verge of tears. Dodge reined up beside her and couldn’t understand why she was so upset at losing.

“I don’t think it’s much fun to come in last,” Nelson huffed. “How can you stand it? Why do you race all the time when you never win?”

Dodge thought about it and replied, “Who cares about winning? It’s fun to get out here and race. It’s exhilarating. Somebody has to lose. If I come in last, that just keeps someone else from feeling bad about being last. That makes me feel good.”

What a long way Dodge had come from pushing to be first in the big city rat race to accepting last in a wild west horse race.

Maybe nobody really understood John Dodge, but everyone in Jackson Hole could sympathize with him. All shared the same power of place. In the Robert Betts book Along the Ramparts of the Tetons, the author recalls a visit Dodge received from a wealthy sister back east. She was appalled to see him living in the squalor of a log cabin in the middle of such wilderness.

“What do you see in this godforsaken place?” she asked.

It was a question many of us who live here have heard over the decades. We all stammer for the words to adequately answer it; to capture every essence of what this valley means to us.

Dodge just pointed to the Tetons. “Egad, Carrie, what does a man want when he has all that?”