Retreating to East Georgia’s Hidden Dude Ranch
written by MARTY STEINER
MANY EQUINE ENTHUSIASTS WILL SWEAR THE BEST OF THE WEST IS RIGHT HERE IN GEORGIA. In a Travel + Leisure roundup of “America’s Best Dude Ranches,” a dozen destinations across the country were spotlighted. Southern Cross was the only Georgia ranch and one of only two on the East Coast that made this list.
Unlike the others, this guest ranch doesn’t require a cross-country flight or a long drive, but is just an hour east of Atlanta and convenient to Interstate 20. If this ranch’s location comes as a shock to you, hold on to your horses — the history behind Southern Cross is a wild ride too.
A Family’s Heirloom
WITH OVERTONES OF A GERMAN FAIRYTALE, the story began when “fräulein” (unmarried woman) Inge Zeuch, who grew up in the Frankfurt region with few riding horses, married an American GI and moved to the United States. In 1964, the couple settled near Indianapolis, Indiana. After a number of active duty deployments took a toll on their marriage, she remained in Indiana as a divorced mother of three.
Utilizing a small family inheritance, she purchased a farm in 1974 along with an assortment of Paint, Quarter, Tennessee Walker and Appaloosa horses. She fell in love with Paints and began an active Paint breeding program. Working with a few champion stallions, a touch of serendipity brought Heirloom, an outstanding Indiana stallion, to the family. During Heirloom’s relatively short career, he made her property a destination for many, including German clientele purchasing American horses. A lack of sufficient onsite accommodations and harsh winters, however, led her to look south for a horse-breeding ranch possibility.
In 1991, she purchased a 200-acre farm near Madison that came with an unfinished residence and a small, rundown barn. She began building what would become Southern Cross, a hub for routing American horses to European buyers and a rapidly growing guest ranch for visiting clients. The move involved relocating nearly 200 horses more than 600 miles and the operation of both sites simultaneously for a period of time. The arrival of the 1996 Summer Olympics to Atlanta and its equine sports jump-started the hospitality portion of her ranch operation. Today, the expansive barn, hiking and riding trails accompanied by a bed and breakfast are proof of the now -remarried Wendling’s passion, hard work and perseverance.
In this way, the history and development of Southern Cross closely parallels the origins of the original “dude” ranches in the 1880s. The early settlers in the West established cattle ranches in the virgin country. Excited by their new lifestyle, freedom and peacefulness of the open land, they would invite friends from the East to visit.
A steady drizzle of the occasional visitor turned into a flood of city slickers, called “dudes,” especially after the railroads opened. The cost to host these guests soon became a burden. Charging for room and board while allowing guests to ride their horses became the common business model for guest ranches, many of which ceased raising cattle altogether and pivoted totally toward the hospitality-side of the business.
That same allure remains today: escaping the city rush and enjoying the serenity of the countryside, especially experienced from horseback.
Ready to Ride
IF YOU HAVE A HEART FOR HORSES or appreciate the solitude of bucolic settings, then Southern Cross is a welcome haven to visit again and again. The ranch remains family owned and operated with a unique blend of German thoroughness and Southern hospitality. There are 14 rooms in the main house and just a few steps away, three additional rooms are inside the dining room building. Most rooms have a view of the grounds and the horses.
Ideally suited for trail riding by novices as well as seasoned riders, the horses include the Paint horse, one of America’s largest registered breeds and the American Quarter horse. Paints are described as being built on a base of Quarter and Thoroughbred lines with a conformation of a Western stock horse blended with spotted pinto. Characteristics are heavy, compact and muscular, but not too tall, lending to maneuverability, rapid acceleration and sprinting. Paints are popularly used in a variety of equestrian disciplines, especially Western riding and reining.
Described as “decorated by nature,” the American Paint derives its markings from the two-toned mounts of the Spanish explorers, primarily of the West and Southwest. Native Americans and working cowboys alike sought these hardy and intelligent animals. The breed’s amiability, calmness and agreeable disposition make for an ideal companion and riding mount with either leisure or trail riders.
The Quarter Horse is the sprinter — the drag racer of the equine world — so-named for its speed over the first quarter mile of any horse race. It is the most popular with the largest breed registration in the world. Like the Paint, the Quarter horse is also smaller in stature with a pleasant personality, making it ideal for less-experienced riders.
Regardless of skill set, riding at Southern Cross is always an intimate experience. Groups are limited to six riders, making conversation possible among the group and the guide. Trails range from open meadows and wooded areas to Canter Hill, named for the tendency to pick up the pace when on this slope. While riding is not suitable for children younger than age 4, those ages 4 to 9 may ride tandem with their parents or another adult. Some youngsters may ride alone on a leadline in the ranch arena. Older children may ride with the group on their own horse. Rides are available twice a day for up to two hours each.
Planning Your Visit
BESIDES A NOD FROM TRAVEL + LEISURE, what are the key factors to consider when choosing a guest ranch for vacation? For casual or inexperienced riders, look for easy terrain.
It’s also worth considering the time of year, with an eye toward no weather extremes. March through June is a time for foaling, the birth of new horses, and many guests have had the opportunity to witness this firsthand at Southern Cross. The staff will facilitate attendance at a birth, if the opportunity presents itself during your stay.
Finally, the size of groups on a ride can play a major role in the guest ranch experience. Southern Cross’ maximum of six is far less than most. Solo, unguided riding for those comfortable doing so, is not only allowed here, it is encouraged. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect is the hands-on ability to interact with your horse as it is taken from the stable, groomed and saddled, ridden, groomed and returned to its stall.
If time doesn’t allow an overnight stay, a variety of day trip arrangements are available with riding, meals or both. Saddling up aside, the swimming pool, mountain bikes and unlimited 24-hour snacks, desserts and beverages are available to all guests as well.
While Southern Cross reflects a family that treasures spending time together, the experience is underlined by a genuine love for horses. The ranch’s stated philosophy is that it can’t be a horse-lover’s paradise if it’s not a horse’s paradise first.
Culture without Canter
When a breakaway from the bunch is on the mind, set your sights on a number of unique opportunities in the area.
The Steffen Thomas Museum of Art
The Steffen Thomas Museum of Art, located in the real city of Buckhead, is less than 3 miles from Southern Cross. Steffen Wolfgang George Thomas was a German-born, Atlanta-based artist generally known for monument statues but was active across the spectrum of art. He came to America commissioned to create the sculptures at Mar-a-Lago, now President Trump’s Palm Beach Club. The Georgia State Capitol and many other public sites feature his statues. A special series of programs, “Steffen Thomas: A Legacy in Atlanta,” is currently running through September 30. steffenthomas.org
Farmhouse Inn at Hundred Acre Farm
The nearby Farmhouse Inn at Hundred Acre Farm is widely known as a wedding venue, and easily fits the bill of being a peaceful retreat. Recently, the historic Sugar Creek Baptist Church was moved to the property and restored as a wedding chapel. thefarmhouseinn.com
Antique Sweets The entire historic town of Madison is worth a visit and if you need any convincing, the family-owned chocolatier Antique Sweets should do it. Top it with a stop inside the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, offering live theater, music and both art and history exhibits all housed in a restored 1895 Romanesque school building. Information on these sites is available at madisonga.com, antiquesweets.com and mmcc-arts.org.
Recipes Worth Repeating
Southern Cross Guest Ranch is a family affair. In fact, dinner in the dining room finds the entire Southern Cross team having their meals together at the table. Hardly a meal goes by without an old country dish or two being passed among them. Meals are served at specific times, somewhat like a summer camp. Hearty and healthy, the menu of international and local food is self-served from a buffet line. Guests may find Southern almond chicken right next to authentic schnitzel. Real German potato salad and red cabbage are available side dishes, with portion sizes entirely up to you. Other signature dishes guests may encounter are creamed leeks, creamy cucumber salad, drunken pork and German meatloaf. These and many more are in the Southern Cross Ranch cookbook, “Favorite Recipes of the Southern Cross Guest Ranch.” We’ve shared a few that you can recreate at home at pointsnorthatlanta.com/southern-cross-recipes/.