In 1949, thirty-one year old Steve Henson and his wife, Gayle, decided to leave their home in Nebraska and head off for the unknown in Alaska. Henson established himself as a very successful plumbing contractor, with a large crew of employees. Henson’s role as boss also included keeping his crew happily fed while working in remote locations. He concocted a salad dressing made from ingredients he always had on hand – mayonnaise, buttermilk and some herbs and spices.
"It's tough to feed men up in those bush jobs. If they don't like something, they're as likely to throw it at the cook as they are to walk out cursing. I had to come up with something to keep them happy," Henson told Sergio Ortiz in a 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Times. Henson rose to the challenge and his dressing became a favorite among the staff.
After three years, Henson’s acquired wealth and wanderlust led him to relocate his family to warmer pastures. He purchased a dude ranch near Santa Barbara and named it Hidden Valley Ranch. The ranch’s restaurant became a popular attraction and Henson added his dressing to the menu. His friend, Audrey Ovington, owned a local restaurant and persuaded Henson to also supply his tavern with batches of the dressing. Shortly after, Henson began offering the “ranch” dressing as a packaged mix in local stores. As patrons of the dude ranch travelled back to their homes across the country, they asked if Henson could also ship them the ready-to-mix packets of dressing. He began selling the packets mail-order for $0.75 each and production soon overtook every room of his house.
By the mid-60s, the dude ranch faced financial problems and closed. This misfortune became an opportunity, allowing Henson to turn his full attention to his thriving dressing business. He incorporated Hidden Valley Ranch, Inc. and moved operations into a factory in Reno, Nevada, where focus shifted to supplying grocery stores throughout the Southwest and then eventually nationwide. His success caught the attention of Clorox, which bought Henson’s brand for $8 million in 1973 ($49MM today). He had become a fifty-five year old millionaire.
Henson spent his remaining years traveling and enjoying retired life. Gayle passed away in 1983. Henson died in 2007 at the age of eighty-nine, survived by a son and daughter. To celebrate his pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, mark your calendars for March 10th – National Ranch Dressing Day.
To learn more about Steve Henson, we recommend Ranch Dressing Originated in the Santa Barbara Mountains.