The story of the Nebraska cowboy who invented ranch dressing

Steve and Gayle Henson are credited with the creation and first sales of Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing.


YORK — A popular condiment on salads, burgers and sandwiches and a dip for vegetables, pizza slices and deep fried food was developed by a former resident of York County.

Kenneth Henson of Thayer invented Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, which contains buttermilk, salt, garlic, onion, herbs and spices. The Nebraska-born cowboy dreamed of striking it rich so he and his wife Gayle (Penner) did what so many before them had done -- head west.

In 1949, Henson went to Alaska for three years to work as a plumbing contractor -- a job that included cooking for his fellow workers. While cooking in Alaska, he refined a recipe for buttermilk dressing.

This dressing became the house dressing at Hidden Valley Ranch, a dude ranch the Hensons purchased near Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1954. For many years they hosted guests from near and far who came to enjoy the ranch and enjoy the meals by Kenneth (who by then changed his name to Steve), Gayle and their staff. Income from the ranch was not enough to keep the 120-acre spread going, so Henson sold 54 acres and more Ranch Dressing to keep their heads above water.

They started to get so many requests for the dressing -- more than for ranch bookings -- that Gayle and Henson created a dry packaged mix. They sold the mix of salt, monosodium glutamate, dehydrated garlic, parsley and onions, black pepper and calcium stearate to stores and customers who lived a great distance away.

Kelley's Korner in Santa Barbara was the first store to sell the packaged mix. The packages sold out so fast that Lloyd Kelley, store owner, thought his staff was stealing it. Within no time, Hidden Valley Ranch became transformed into a salad dressing center.

The name Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing was originally trademarked by Henson. Henson's trademark has since expired, but Hidden Valley (#1307312, reg 1984), owned by Clorox, continues.

The Hidden Valley “dude” Ranch was sold in the early 1970s. By October of 1973, Henson sold the brand and product to Clorox for $8 million.

The change of ownership changed the prepackaged mix. It was relatively popular even though consumers had to go out and buy buttermilk to add to the mix, but Clorox decided to make it easier. They re-evaluated the mix by adding buttermilk flavoring, so regular milk could be used instead of buttermilk.

The dressing really took off in 1983, when, despite high dairy content, Clorox came up with a shelf-stable bottled version that was good for up to 150 days.

In the late 1980s, Ranch started to appear as a dip and in 1992 Ranch overtook Italian as America's most popular salad dressing.

Today, Ranch is noted as being America's favorite dressing. It is sold across the U.S. and in more than 30 countries. The dressing is found in thousands of restaurants and is enjoyed on everything from salads to pizza.

Steve Henson passed away Feb. 23, 2007 in Reno, Nev., at the age of 89. He was preceded in death by Gayle who passed on Nov. 23, 1993 in Reno, Nev.

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