‘Yellowstone’: How Taylor Sheridan Chose the Dutton Ranch, As Told by Its Owner

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The Dutton family’s home base on Yellowstone, the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch, and the land they’re so determined to hold onto, is actually someone else’s real-life refuge. The Chief Joseph Ranch, a historic working cattle ranch in western Montana, has been owned and operated by rancher Shane Libel and his family since 2012.

“We fell in love with it — the history, the buildings — just the ranch itself,” Libel says of the 2,500 acres of land a few hours from Yellowstone National Park. “It spoke to us.”

The ranch’s history stretches back more than a century — and just like the Dutton ranch, it’s become an institution in its community. Previously inhabited by the Salish Native American tribe, the land was settled in the 1880s (originally dubbed the Shelton Ranch). In 1914, glass tycoon William S. Ford and federal judge Howard Clark Hollister teamed up to purchase the then-flourishing apple orchard and later replaced the land’s apple trees with a herd of Holstein cattle. By the 1950s, the Ford-Hollister Ranch was sold and renamed the Chief Joseph Ranch, and it remains as such today.

“I can’t go about anywhere in our valley without someone saying to me, ‘My grandfather used to work there’ or ‘My great-grandparents used to work there,’” says Libel of his ranch’s storied past.

As for the present, Libel says that the Paramount Network drama paints a fairly accurate picture of today’s American Western lifestyle, noting that there are of course some obvious differences between hardened patriarch John Dutton, played by star Kevin Costner, and himself.

“We don’t brand anybody who works for us, although I had a young man working for me who was scared to death I was going to do that because he’d seen the show,” Libel says with a laugh. “And I’ve never taken anyone to the train station.” Whew!

'Yellowstone' ranch

Before Yellowstone, Libel was your typical rancher — raising livestock, growing hay and hosting guests on the ranch. He still does all that, but now most of his guests are fans looking to live out their Yellowstone fantasies during the show’s offseason.

The Libels rent out two cabins on-site when the series isn’t filming: the Ben Cook Cabin (inhabited by Cole Hauser’s Rip in Season 1 and Luke Grimes’ Kayce in Season 2) and the Fisherman Cabin (which originally belonged to eldest Dutton sibling Lee, played by Dave Annable).

When cameras are rolling, Libel’s there for every scene possible, helping production as they take over the log mansion. Pre-2012, renters could also stay in the main house, but when the Libels bought the property, they turned the impressive building into their personal abode.

How did the Chief Joseph Ranch become the show’s home? As Libel tells it, it was a whirlwind experience. After a cold call from production, they sent scouts to scope out the location.

A week after their visit, cocreator Taylor Sheridan himself dropped by.

Cole Hauser and Kelly Reilly in 'Yellowstone' Season 4

Paramount Network

“He looked around and said, ‘That’s the bunkhouse right there.’” Libel recalls. “He started walking around and calling out scenes as he saw them. ‘Episode 1, Act 3 here!’ And an assistant was writing everything down. The location director looked at me and said, ‘I think you have it.’”

Less than three weeks later, the show was filming in Libel’s living room. For his family, it’s been the experience of a lifetime. But he was not always confident the series would be a hit.

“We were still filming the pilot, and one evening I said, ‘Taylor, how do you think the show will do?’” Libel notes. “He said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a hit.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Well, how do you know?’ He said, ‘I’m going to make everybody who watches it want to become a cowboy and visit Montana. It’s as simple as that.’”

Four seasons in, the daily droves of fans snapping photos at the ranch’s gates prove Sheridan was right.

“It always makes an impression on me how excited people are to be standing at the gates taking a picture with that sign,” Libel admits. “It speaks to the chord Taylor has struck in the hearts of his audience with his storytelling. It’s a gate — a sign that says ‘The Dutton Ranch.’ But it means so much to so many different people.”

Now, Libel couldn’t be more grateful for Yellowstone’s massive success and his role in it.

“I’ll tell you what’s extraordinarily humbling: sitting in my living room watching this show that is filmed in my house, and the show is watched by millions and millions of people worldwide,” he says. “I sit there and realize that, to millions of people, my house is quintessential Montana.”

Yellowstone, Season 5 Premiere, Sunday, November 13, Paramount Network

This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s Yellowstone Deluxe Collector’s Edition, which is available for purchase here.