Tracking True Grit Part 2

Fall Meets Winter | Beebower Productions

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.

True Grit Ranch | Beebower Productions

“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.

True Grit Cafe | Beebower Productions

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.

Glowing Aspens | Beebower Productions

If You Go

The aspens along the road put on a magnificent display in October.  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.

Tracking True Grit Part 1

True Grit Meadow | Beebower Productions

Like U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, we raced up the mountain with anticipation and determination burning in our gut.  But our prize wasn’t a low-down dirty outlaw, rather the most famous scenery from the beloved 1969 Western “True Grit”.

When I discovered that most of the legendary John Wayne movie had been filmed around Ridgway, Colorado, I knew tracking down the movie locations was a no-brainer.  Dad grew up watching a steady diet of Westerns.  From TV shows like Gunsmoke and Rawhide to movies like “High Plains Drifter” and “The Magnificent Seven”, he eagerly soaked up stories of the vast, untamed American frontier and the folks who lived there.

An art festival brought us to Ridgway, but I quickly informed Dad of our post-festival activities.  The Ridgway Area Chamber of Commerce printed a brochure called “Ridgway’s Western Movie Heritage” that revealed all we needed to know.  Hollywood loved filming in and around the tiny town.  The marquee included “True Grit”, “Tribute to a Bad Man”, “How the West was Won”, “The Sons of Katie Elder”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid” and most recently “The Hateful Eight”. 

While Hollywood directors loved the scenery around Ridgway, not everyone lauded the decision to film there.   Charles Portis, author of the book “True Grit” (upon which the movie was based) said he thought Colorado looked more like a “big sky” Western than Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the real setting of the book.

“True Grit” movie director Henry Hathaway later said, “Yes, I know, but it didn’t matter because all Western movies were fairy tales, more or less, and a specular landscape was expected.”

Dad agreed. 

“If I go to a movie, and I’m thinking “Holy mackerel!  I’ve gotta go see this place!’ then the director’s done his job well.  I’m always curious what the real place looks like,” Dad said.  “Obviously directors go to a lot of time and trouble to find the best places to film their movie.  If you pay attention to scenery in movies and can find out where it was shot, you save yourself some trouble.  It’s basically location scouting done for you.  Plus it’s just cool to see the place for yourself.”

Visual story telling drove Hathaway.  According to movie historian Fredrik Gustafson’s blog, “He (Hathaway) was very particular about what he wanted.  He would sometimes wait, and hold up the production for days, until the light was exactly right for a particular shot, dismissing angry calls from producers.”

In fact, Hathaway commented, “I’d say my greatest directional strength is my stubbornness:  I know what I want and I go after it.”

Hmmm…sounded like another guy I knew.  That led me to conclude if the San Juan Mountains possessed jaw-dropping scenery good enough for Hathaway’s “True Grit”, they’d be perfect for Dad.

“Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!”

We tackled the movie trail backwards, finding the end-of-the-movie scenes first.  Locating the stunning meadow where the final show-stopping firefight takes place between Wayne’s character Rooster Cogburn and Ned Pepper’s gang of misfits topped our list.  Locals called it Katie’s Meadow. 

We headed out north on Highway 550 from Ridgway and turned off at County Road 10 going towards Owl Creek Pass.  Cattle once plodded along this dirt road on the way to market.  We followed the long, winding path 14.7 miles up through the Cimmaron Mountains, enjoying the picturesque ranches, dramatic bluffs, the sparkling creek and hundreds of towering trees as we crept toward the meadow. 

We completed switchback after switchback.  Then, just as the directions stated, the meadow unfurled to our left.  And what a glorious meadow it was!  The sun backlit hundreds of golden corn lilies in the meadow as a lazy, crystal-clear stream meandered toward the road. Chimney Peak and Courthouse Mountain soared high above the field adding drama and the “wow” factor to the scene.

We spent the morning exploring the meadow.  We easily found the creek where Rooster, Mattie and Laboeuf camped as well as the rock on the far side of the meadow where Pepper shot Cogburn’s horse right out from under him. 

True Grit Aspens | Beebower Productions

Groves of aspens testify to the visitors at Katie’s Meadow over the years.

Apparently plenty of people visited the meadow over the years, leaving their own mark on the aspens that follow the creek.  I found tree after tree carved with dates, initials and art.  If you watch the movie, those aspens had just started to turn beautiful shades of yellow, something Henry Hathaway purposely waited on before filming the grand fight scene.

Next to the creek, Dad and I discovered a wooden fence line that lent an air of the Old West to the meadow.  By then, we’d noticed storm clouds building around the peaks and the light shifting to a favorable position.  Like Hathaway, Dad knew what he wanted and he went after it.

He wasted no time venturing through the corn lilies to capture his piece of Colorado beauty and movie history.  I hung back to capture Dad working his magic in the grand landscape.   

At the end of the day, we’d joined hundreds of other Wayne aficionados in taking a piece of movie history home with us in the form of pictures.   We couldn’t wait for the next day’s “True Grit” adventures.

Join us next Wednesday when Dad and I track down the Mattie’s ranch and learn how Ridgway, Colorado became Ft. Smith, Arkansas.

True Grit Fence | Beebower Productions

If You Go

Head north from Ridgway on Highway 550.  Turn right about 1.7 miles out of town on County Road 10.   Follow the signs on this unpaved road toward Owl Creek Pass.  County Road 10 will eventually become County Road 8.  Travel 14.7 miles from your turn off.  Just after a series of switchbacks you’ll see Katie’s Meadow on the left.  There are no signs marking the meadow, but there is a place to pull off and explore.

  • Continue up the switchbacks a little less than a mile until you come to Owl Creek Pass.  The rock that Mattie slept on is on the right near the creek. 
  • The road leads to Silver Jack Reservoir and eventually comes out at Cimmaron.
  • Take a high clearance vehicle.  It’s not required but a good idea.
  • Take food, water and gas.   There are no services along the way and cell service is spotty.

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