Richard V. (Dick) Dennison was one of those enigmatic characters who came to Dubois from the East Coast, tried and failed, and then vanished without leaving much of himself behind.
Fortunately for us, someone mentioned to Grace Remington, a documentary film-maker in New York City, that she “had a grand uncle who killed someone and then fled justice to Wyoming, where he built a palatial lodge populated with celebrities.”
Curious, Grace followed up briefly over the phone with former Dubois mayor Twila Blakeman. Then the pandemic hit.
A few months ago, with the pandemic easing, and herself now supported by a fellowship from the Jacob Burns Film Center, Grace reached out to the Dubois Museum, feeling a need to “just go and see if anyone knows anything about this guy to whom I’m distantly related and who died a long time ago.” (He was her maternal grandfather’s uncle.)
I happened upon Grace at the coffee shop, on her first morning in town. Lynn Stewart introduced us, we sorted out our coincidental connection, and she beamed her infectious smile. I’m so glad I stopped by that morning.
It happens that Grace lives about 6 blocks from my former home in Brooklyn. This revelation prompted a long and intense conversation, mostly about restaurants and ethnic food stores far from Wyoming.
She had just arrived. She sat on the white sofa, the Perch’s copy of Mary Allison’s Dubois Area History right in front of her on the table. She stayed for 3 hours after I left, as people drew her in and vice versa, the way it often happens in there.
She came to my house later (I lent her a memory card) and a few days afterwards we had lunch at the Cowboy Cafe, where I formally interviewed her and took notes. This is that story.
R.V.D. did leave one important thing behind: the Dennison Lodge. It’s the attractive log building that stands today between the Dubois Museum and the National Bighorn Sheep Center, across the highway from Family Dollar.
As most locals know, it used to stand 18 miles up East Fork, the center of an exclusive, invitation-only dude ranch whose guests included Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
After Dennison died suddenly, under mysterious circumstances, and the property ended up in government hands, the building was threatened with demolition. Several influential women moved heaven and earth to get it moved into town. It’s an event venue today. (At least one barn from the property was also relocated, a few miles down East Fork, to the site of the Trial Lawyers College.)
Many long-term residents can sketch in other details, often tracing back to the account in Mary Allison’s book. A Brief History of the Dennison Lodge, published in 2000, repeats some of the same information and adds more.
They say that Richard Dennison fled here to escape prosecution after he killed someone in a hit-and-run accident back East. The lodge was fitted out with lavish, expensive furniture and mounts of African animals which Dennison, not being a hunter, had purchased. He went broke, killed himself, and the lodge stood empty.
That’s the local lore, much of it true. But the reality that Grace is teasing out is different in some details, at once stranger and oddly familiar.
During her visit, the town responded “in a way that was genuine and really beautiful,” Grace told me. “I got to know people, and everyone was enthusiastic to share what they have to offer.”
She visited the Dennison and the Museum and anyone she could find who had information about the history of the Lodge and its founder. Grace told me it was interesting to see “how the story plays out in a town full of stories and story tellers–reliable and otherwise.”
Richard Dennison was born in Philadelphia in December 1880, the third of 7 siblings, three of whom died in childhood. Mary Allison says he was a member of the New Jersey family that owned the Dennison Paper Company, but actually his father was president of American Oil Development Company in Pittsburgh. As Grace puts it, he was a trust fund baby.
A Brief History of the Dennison Lodge says that Dick visited “the CM Dude Ranch on Jakey’s Fork in 1913” at the age of 23. But he was actually 33 in 1913, and that was 7 years before Charles Moore founded the CM on Jakey’s Fork. Moore did run a pack-tripping operation out of the base of the Dunoir, but it was intended for boys, not grown men, and its buildings burned down sometime around 1905, according to Allison.
Her book says that he first came here in 1914, without mentioning the CM Ranch. Whatever the reality, like so many others Dennison obviously fell in love with the Wind River Valley once he saw it.
“Clearly, he had the experience of a lifetime there,” Grace said. “That must be when he decided what he wanted to do.”
Looking through records at the court house in Lander, she hasn’t yet tracked down exactly when Dick bought the ranch up Bear Creek. But only 7 years later, by 1920, he lived in Lander. In 1924, he was living back East in New Jersey, but by 1930 he was in Fremont County for good.
He began living out the cowboy dream. People say he was a good rider. On the ranch, he raised Jersey cattle and thoroughbred horses.
After Grace left, I took a picture of a few pages about Dick Dennison from Esther Mockler’s memoir, and texted them to her. He “had a theory that horses raised in high altitudes would develop a larger lung capacity than low-altitude horses, and thus could win more races,” Mockler wrote. “He never conclusively proved his theory.”
“Seems like a good summation of Dick Dennison’s overall approach to things,” Grace wrote back, repeating the last line: He never conclusively proved his theory.
There’s also much that she may never prove conclusively.
Through a distant relative doing family genealogy, whom she learned about from the Dubois Museum, and from her own research, Grace has discovered “things that aren’t the case.” In short, much of what Dick Dennison told people here is untrue or cannot be verified.
Mary Allison wrote that he had a twin brother who died at the age of 12. There is no record of a twin brother.
He told people that he served overseas in World War I, and he chose to wear WWI-style Army boots. According to the genealogy by Grace’s relative, his death certificate says that he was a World War 1 veteran who suffered shell shock after the war. But his passport shows that he went to France in 1918 as a volunteer for the Red Cross.
At the age of 37, he would have been deemed too old to serve according to regulations at the time, and in any case the war ended shortly afterwards. Veteran or volunteer, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But he left a certain impression.
Mary Allison recorded his middle name as “venison” (see image above). “Richard Venison Dennison?” said Grace. “That’s so insane!” His real middle name was Vincent. Was she mistaken, or was he playing around?
“Who knows?” she said during our interview. “Maybe the hit and run was another fabrication, to give him some sort of ‘credibility’. Like he killed someone, but then he wasn’t to blame because it was an accident, so he didn’t have to feel guilty.” The concept “fleeing justice to the West” does have considerably more glamor than just coming West to play cowboy, doesn’t it?
Because there’s no evidence that he ever mentioned a date and a place, and by definition he would have fled the scene, Grace can’t imagine how she might validate that part of his story. He had no criminal record.
When he came to Wyoming, Grace believes, he set about to “write his own story and fashion a life for himself that was fulfilling.” She talks of a “duality of identity,” of a life not lived and experiences never had.
In a sense, she pointed out, he followed a course of action that is paralleled by “many other people, even to this day” — those who envision a new lifestyle for themselves and head West to create it.
On September 27, 1939, according to Mary Allison, Dick called his friend Eloise Peck saying that she should come over if she wanted to see him alive. When she arrived at 10:30 a.m., she found him dead in a chair. There was no inquest, and the rumor that he took his own life has not been verified. He was 59 years old.
He was cremated and his ashes taken to Denver. There is no information beyond that.
Grace drove to Lander to read his estate documents. In December 1939, the inventory ran to 27 pages of possessions, assessed at $100,000. But there was also a long list of creditors, and the inventory list eventually shrank to 5 pages. By that time the assessment had fallen to $33,500, “which the lawyer for his executor conveniently buys,” Grace told me.
There are rumors that many items were stolen and never recorded.
“It’s telling and poetic that what remained of Dick Dennison was a list of his stuff,” Grace said at the Cowboy Cafe. Very few pictures from the Dennison ranch in the Museum collection have people in them, she told me. Most of them show nothing but things.
“But after all, the only thing that remains of any of us are the stories we tell about ourselves,” she went on, “and the stories that others tell about us.”
“Well, there IS a big lodge,” she added, with that smile.
She asked for a hug, and we parted. Grace intends to return to Dubois sometime in June.
© Lois Wingerson, 2022