Defa’s Dude Ranch is for sale. If a corporation buys this historic Utah dude ranch it is hard to imagine that the authentic mix between Wild West saloon and “Disneyland for rednecks” character of this place will not be lost forever.
“You know that saying, ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’?” asks a man seated at the bar. “Well, that saying originated at Defa’s.”
Sequestered within extensive tracts of national forest along the North Fork of the Duchesne River, you first have to find Defa’s Dude Ranch before you can shed city ways and enjoy an isolated experience. There is no sign on Highway 35 indicating the turn-off, and when the pavement ends you just have to trust you’re headed in the right direction. Families and friends have been coming here for generations though Utahns either know Defas or they don’t.
The saloon, which also functions as the office, is the property’s home base. Makes sense. The founder, Italian immigrant pioneer Frank Defa, was also an infamous bootlegger in the Uintah Basin. Historically, Frank was an industrious source of growth in nearby Hanna, having engaged in various successful business ventures, beginning with setting up a saloon in a tent to serve gold-seeking prospectors in 1914. In 1946, he built the first of 17 one-room cabins on the current ranch layout and a family legacy was born.
As the ranch has been passed down in the Defa family, so too has the clan’s genuine affability and inclusiveness. Anyone who does make the trek is immediately welcomed by both the amiable ranch personnel and other guests. “Everyone here either is family or knows family,” bartender Mickey Winrow shares.
This hub of liberty and tranquility, “a Disneyland for rednecks,” as one regular puts it, offers activities characteristically divided by day and night. Guests can fish, trail ride, play horseshoes, or hike up to the Grandaddy Lakes basin. Children’s laughter blends with rustling aspen leaves and the sounds of horses in the corral. Signaling a night of grown-up hoopla at sundown is the sound of the cowbell suspended above the bar top. Whoever rings the bell buys a round for everyone.
Frank’s great-grandson, Johann Defa, recounts that initially the only people who came to Defa’s watering hole were “farmers, miners and truckers. Wolf Creek Pass was 60 miles of dirt road.” Easier access now means that after the snow has melted out-of-towners can come up for a weekend. For the saloon’s Saturday night shindigs people drive from Salt Lake to Vernal for live music and dancing. The bar’s backwoods interior and history conjure a different place and time, and the most common comment you hear about Defa’s is that there’s just no other place like it .“In the summertime,” Johann claims, “this is the best place to be in the Uinta Basin.”
With the passing of his dedicated and well-loved grandfather, Geno, in 2010, Johann and his brother assumed management of the property. A handful of Defas collectively own the land, buildings, and 60 leased parcels on the property, and collectively they have decided to put Defa’s Dude Ranch up for sale. The 155-acre parcel is listed at $5.2 million.
“If someone bought it and tried to modernize it, they’d just ruin the homey atmosphere here,” Mickey presumes as she pours a pitcher of beer. In fact, bringing up the topic of Defa’s future triggers a round of speculation about whether or not the continuation of the ranch in its current,organically-grown-over-time state is viable since aspects of the property and business have been grandfathered into modified codes and permissions.
“Nobody wants it to change,” adds a patron who drove up in a replica ‘35 British roadster to slake his Sunday thirst. “If this place sells it would just close down.” If that occurs then indeed what has happened at Defa’s will always stay at Defa’s. §