Arts & Humanities

Training the Next Generation of Fieldworkers

Students, faculty and support staff of the 2017 Field School of Cultural Documentation at the historic Bar B C Ranch in the Grant Teton National Park. Photo used by permission of Jeannie Thomas.

By Randy Williams, Utah State University Library

This summer eight Utah State University and three University of Wyoming students learned the art of cultural documentation while documenting the historic Triangle X Dude Ranch inside the Grand Teton National Park. The oldest operating dude ranch in the GTNP, the Turner Family has welcomed guests at the Triangle X for more than ninety years. This summer, the Turners’ welcomed the USU/UW students as they participated in a Library of Congress Field School for Cultural Documentation. The 2017 Field School is a collaboration between Utah State University, the University of Wyoming, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Previously, USU partnered with the LOC to host a field school in 2015.

The faculty for this summer’s event included Margaret Kruesi and Guha Shankar at the American Folklife Center; Lisa Gabbert, director of the Utah State University’s Folklore Program; Randy Williams, Fife Folklore Archives curator and oral history specialist at USU Special Collections & Archives; and Andrea Graham, folklife specialist at the University of Wyoming’s American Studies Program.

The field school is an intensive, multi-week, residential workshop designed to provide students with basic ethnographic fieldwork skills, including participant observation, interviewing, field notes, ethics, and archiving best practices. This year’s field school at the Triangle X, was a huge success.

“I wanted to do a field school in Grand Teton ever since I first saw the AMK Ranch in 2010, and it was partnering with my folklore colleagues at USU that made it possible,” said Andrea Graham. “ Partnership exemplified the whole field school: working with the U.S. Park Service and the Turner family, and the great collaboration of the student fieldwork teams in documenting the traditions of contemporary dude ranching.”

Shannon Dennison, Grand Teton National Park cultural resources branch chief, suggested the project. Dennison and Betsy Engle, GTNP Architectural Historian, met with students to give historical context and park concession information. On the first day of the field school, Engle hosted the students on a tour of the historic (non-working), ghost-town-like Bar B C Ranch. This visit helped to put into perspective the unique position of the Triangle X as a continually operating dude ranch in the Park.

Students worked collaboratively in teams of two or three to document the traditions of the Turner family, guests and workers.

“The Folklore Field School was an illuminating experience that allowed me to develop skills key to the collection process,” Michelle Jones, a USU graduate student noted. “I had a great time participating in the interviewing process, and I’m so excited to see what we collected go live.” The products of the students’ fieldwork will be available online at USU’s Special Collections and Archives in late October.

The hands-on, in situ nature of ethnographic field schools are an important element of folklore training. Students learn by doing and exploring. During the first week of the field school, students and faculty participated in a tour of the Triangle X Ranch and an interview with Harold M. Turner, senior member of the Turner family, who grew up on the ranch and continues to own the operation with his brother John. Mr. Turner explained to the students about the history of the ranch and his family involvement since 1926. He explained that “the dude ranch business used to be [that] everybody would come for a month. . . . The women and children would come for the whole summer, because it was so darn hard to get here. And with all their steamer trunks, and they’d have to meet them in Victor [Idaho], because that was where there was a train spur. And they’d meet them with stagecoaches and wagons, and bring them over here. And as I say, they’d stay all summer. . . . And then the man may come out for a month or so in the summer, but the mother and the kids were here all summer.”

During the interview modeling exercise by Williams and Graham, Kylie Schroeder, USU folklore graduate, asked Turner about his unique belt buckle with an inlaid elk.

“I had a hunter that hunted with me for two or three years, and he went to Hawaii and he found this shop that built jewelry and everything,” Turner said.  “And so, he just asked them if they would build this belt buckle for me. They had to look in the encyclopedia, they had no idea what an elk looked like.”

Building on this, Margaret Kruesi noted that fieldwork training is essential to the fields of academic and public folklore.

“There is no substitute for students’ first-hand experiences of interacting with members of the communities, in this case, the dude ranching community, learning about material culture, for example, through Mr. Harold Turner’s story about his belt buckle hand-crafted as a gift from a hunting camp guest,” she continued. “While they develop skills in documentary photography and interviewing, students benefit from receiving immediate feedback from faculty. At the American Folklife Center, where we have over 20 years’ experience partnering with universities and folklore organizations in field schools for cultural documentation, we have seen field school students become committed to the field of folklore. They are folklorists and faculty currently training a new generation of field workers.”

Lisa Gabbert concurred saying that she thinks field schools are a great idea and that there should be more of them.

“Having done two field schools now, I think the field school model is an excellent way to train students. It provides real-life skills and experiences, and significant collaborative work on a meaningful project that is well beyond the scope of what a student could accomplish individually on his or her own,” Gabbert said. “The student to faculty ratio is quite small, students receive a lot of one-on-one mentoring, and they also get to interact with professionals at a national level.”

Ross Garner, USU graduate student, wrote about his field school experience saying that after he had spent twelve days in Jackson Hole documenting folklife on the Triangle X Dude Ranch, the concept of ethnographic fieldwork and the archiving process took on added meaning.

“More than recording the place-specific knowledge of the Triangle X and making it accessible to others, the Utah State University and University of Wyoming Folklife Field School demonstrated how the tools of folklore and archiving can touch, at least tangentially, on the emotional center of human experiences and help capture, preserve, and clarify the specific details and larger themes that make life meaningful,” Garner said. “And while these insights might be nothing new to those on the Triangle X, they may prove useful to the National Park Service in determining the future role the ranch will play as a concession in the Grand Teton National Park’s cultural landscape.”

Bethany Budge, an undergraduate USU student says that one of the important parts of an interviewer is constructing questions that are not just surface level and will [help you] dig deeper.

“This is when you really understand the job or culture you are learning about. You also play to your strengths by being aware of what you know and what you don’t know,” Budge said. If you are not informed about something ask, do not pretend that you do. . . . Our team tried to play to our strengths in interviews to understand more and be able to follow-up or ask questions that others might not be able to fully understand.”

Field school students and faculty were originally housed at the AMK Ranch inside the GTNP. The AMK, like all structures inside the Park (the Triangle X included) are owned by the National Park. The AMK is managed by the University of Wyoming.

Due to unforeseen bat problems at the AMK, students and faculty were relocated on the third day of the field school, adding a unique element to the field school. The situation was managed expertly by Utah State University’s English Department, USU Risk Management, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, USU Library, President’s Office, and AMK staff. All health and safety concerns were mitigated, including rabies shots as a precaution for some, and everyone stayed to complete the fieldwork.

“This was certainly an unforeseeable turn of events, but by working together, administration, faculty, students and medical professionals were able to mitigate the potential for harm,” said Mike George, director of USU Risk Management. “The field school staff did an excellent job of making sure students’ needs were being met, while still continuing the field school learning experience. It was a valuable learning opportunity for all involved.”

USU graduate student Michelle Jones said the field school experienced a significant interruption when the seemingly innocuous bats that were living in the cabin were decided to be a rabies risk.

“The rapidly changing plans and escalating situation caused stress and pressure for everyone involved,” Jones said. “Like in our interviews, we had to be adaptable.”

Gabbert said that in terms of this field school specifically the students did really excellent documentary work on an important but somewhat neglected aspect of the western experience.

“This collection will become important not only to the Turner family, but to the historical record because it provides insight into the day-to-day operations and experiences of dude ranching as such experiences emerge in the lives of owners, guests and employees,” she said.

Guha Shankar said the Cultural Documentation Field School in Grand Teton National Park provided a unique opportunity for scholars at the beginning stages of their professional careers to experience first-hand the excitement, challenges and rewards of carrying out ethnographic field research.

“There is not, in my experience as an ethnographer and teacher, any training methodology that can reproduce the profound understandings of cultural difference, place-making and community formation that arise out of an immersion into this sort of experiential, first-person cultural work,” said Shankar.

For USU graduate student CJ Guadarrama, Shankar’s words ring true.

“The amount of information that I learned about metadata and conducting professional interviews was second to none,” said Guadarrama. “Although it is nice to be back home, I sometimes fantasize about being back on the ranch, conducting more interviews; it was a truly wonderful place.”

Like Guadarrama, I would love to return to the ranch. The time spent teaching and learning at the Triangle X was a unique opportunity for student and faculty alike. The Turner family, employees, and guests were gracious and accommodating during their busiest season. The concentrated, close working relationships with students and faculty created an important learning environment that models real life folklore fieldwork. My colleagues and I have noted many times, we wish that as graduate students we would have had the opportunity to participate in an ethnographic field school. They are special.

The field school was generously funded by Utah State University English Department, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Utah State University Library, University of Wyoming-National Park Service Small Grants Program, the University of Wyoming American Studies Program, the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund and the Utah State University Mountain West Center for Regional Studies.

Writer and Contact: Randy Williams, 435-797-3493,

Harold M. Turner, senior member of the Turner family, during interview/tour for students of the Triangle X Ranch. Close up of Mr. Turner and his belt buckle. Photo by Rebekah Westrup, field school student. Interviewer Randy Williams.


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