As soon as we turned off the highway, our jaws hit the floor. Last Dollar Road outside of Ridgway, Colorado brought the Old West to life with a dramatic flourish. The San Juan Mountains loomed over top of ranches that dotted the valley. Elk, badgers, black-billed magpies, deer and coyotes moseyed through the meadow as we meandered down the winding dirt road. Groves of aspens framed the entire scene.
Our mission: track down some of the most famous locations from the original 1969 John Wayne movie “True Grit”. Our first stop on this pre-sunrise trip was Mattie Ross’ family ranch.
The ranch sat on private land, but it was easily accessible without trespassing. We wanted warm morning light hitting the decaying buildings, thus we left our hotel in the wee hours of the morning to reach the ranch in time.
Why go to so much trouble to photograph an old crumbling building? We love Westerns and the Old West. Henry Hathaway, the director of “True Grit”, not only opened the movie with the ranch; he also closed the movie with the ranch. That sealed the deal for us, as did the building’s weathered, abandoned look.
We reached the ranch in time for the sunrise, but the mountains behind us blocked the light for about 15 minutes. We didn’t mind. We just feasted our eyes upon the marvelous landscape.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Dad said. “When we went up Last Dollar Road and then continued on up and explored the rest of the area, I thought, ‘Geez this is a really super place!’ The movie was well done. They put together something that was very believable. They took a little artistic license but you could definitely recognize the area from the movie.”
Dad loved the scene so much that he returned in October of last year to photograph the aspens changing colors. He got a bit of surprise, though. The aspens, indeed, burst forth with orange and yellow hues, but a storm dropped snow on the mountains. So Dad shot “Fall Meets Winter”, the image at the top of this blog.
Apparently, the film crew from “True Grit” also got a wintery surprise during filming.
According to the Ridgway Chamber of Commerce’s website, “The film crew was concerned about the lack of snow for the final scene, and had made arrangements for a snowmaking machine, but an early snowfall the night before the scene was scheduled to be shot solved the problem.”
So those high mountain meadows swing from one season to another at the drop of a hat. Last Dollar Road sits at about 9,000 to 10,000 feet (depending on the spot you pick), and it turns out that worked well for Dad and the producers of “True Grit”.
“They tell me you’re a man with true grit”
After we wrapped our shoot at the ranch, we headed back to town for a little more movie history. Surprisingly in the summer of 1968 Ridgway, Colorado became Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Director Henry Hathaway loved this little patch of Colorado. He preferred Ridgway to other locations the team found in Arkansas.
In 2000 Charles Portis, author of the book “True Grit” corresponded with Ft. Smith National Historic Site park rangers about the choice of towns.
He said, “Hal Wallis, the producer, had considered making the movie in Arkansas, and sent an advance man here. I drove this man around northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. He did like the town of Van Buren, saying it would do nicely for 1870s Fort Smith. Later, Hal Wallis called to tell me that there were logistical problems with shooting the picture in Arkansas. I have the idea that Hathaway (the director) persuaded Wallis to make it in Colorado.”
While Portis may not have loved the idea, the town of Ridgway immediately got to work remaking itself. Set construction crews remodeled or moved buildings and created false fronts as needed. Boardwalks popped up around town and then gallows sprung up at Hartwell Park.
The studio employed over 300 locals as movie extras and for jobs like shoveling manure off the streets. In September of 1968 thousands flocked to the open set to watch John Wayne work his magic.
Today Ridgway remains proud of its Western movie heritage. The Chamber of Commerce offers walking tours of the town. Some of the modified buildings like the firehouse, originally a town hall and school before Hollywood came to town, can still be seen today. The movie’s livery stable became today’s post office. And the jail wagon used by Rooster Cogburn at the beginning of the movie waits for miscreants at Heritage Park. Even the dirt roads around town lend an authentic feel to Ridgway.
One building in town pays tribute to the whole experience, though. The True Grit café, built in 1985, contains loads of movie memorabilia. Movie aficionados will definitely recognize the original “Chambers Groceries” painted on the wall by the bar. It appeared behind John Wayne as he unloaded the prison wagon at the beginning of the movie.
The builders carefully included the wall in the restaurant. While the café was built 16 years after the movie, John Wayne fans will definitely enjoy the atmosphere while chowing down on some good grub.
If You Go
To reach Last Dollar Road, leave Ridgway going west on Highway 62 for 11 miles. Drive over the Dallas Divide. Then take a left on Last Dollar Road. Travel 2.5 miles and look for the ranch on the right hand side of the road.
- Take pictures but respect private property.
- Passenger cars are fine on Last Dollar until you encounter rain or snow. Locals recommend a high clearance vehicle.
- To catch a walking tour of Ridgway, contact the Chamber of Commerce at 970-626-5181. Tours leave the Visitors Center on Fridays at 11 a.m May through October. They cost $10 for adults. Children under 12 are free.
- To learn more about Ridgway’s movie history Click Here.