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  • Mathew Silver

Beers, bulls and honky-tonk: An insider recalls Ranchman's glory days

Calgary Herald, September 2020. Find the original article here.

Most people got their introduction to Ranchman’s Cookhouse and Dancehall during a long-forgotten Stampede. Dressed in their country and western regalia, they presumably drank a bit too much beer, then spilled onto the dance floor for a wobbly two-step. Even those unacquainted with the city’s nightlife have probably noticed Ranchman’s distinctive red sign and sprawling patio, from repeatedly driving past it along Macleod Trail. Either way, it was a local landmark.

Alas, after nearly 50 years as the city’s most authentic honky-tonk, Ranchman’s recently went up for lease, with the bank seizing everything from the saddles that hung in the rafters to the iconic name. For most, this would appear to be yet another nasty symptom of COVID-19, which, coupled with an already depleted economy, has made it virtually impossible for a growing number of Calgary businesses to operate.

If Ranchman’s — one of the city’s most resilient clubs, which survived decades in the ever-precarious bar and restaurant industry — yielded to the virus, then it should be a grim harbinger of things to come. But, from my perspective, having worked there for a good chunk of the 2010s, the bar started its slow decline years ago. The pandemic merely forced Ranchman’s to hang up its cowboy hat.

As a kid, I remember first noticing Ranchman’s in Cool Runnings, a delightful film about a disgraced bobsled coach (played by John Candy) who leads the Jamaican team to an appearance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. In one of the most memorable scenes, a couple of the Jamaicans have a motivational chat in the bathroom at Ranchman’s, before clashing with the German team in a drunken barroom riot. I repeated the “I see pride, I see power, I see a badass mother who don’t take no crap…” line whenever possible. That film filled me with a tremendous shot of Calgary pride — second only to Jarome Iginla and the 2003-04 Flames.

Years later, in 2012, during the summer after my first year of university, I got a job at Ranchman’s. By then, with a couple of years of drinking under my belt, I knew it as the rowdiest bar in the city. People packed in like cattle, eager to ride the mechanical bull, learn the line dance to Cadillac Ranch, or, for me, attempt to set the world record for Bud Lights guzzled in one night. The rustic interior — with its dark woodwork, black and white photos of old-school rodeo contestants, and championships saddles that hung in the rafters — always felt like a real hangout for cowboys and cowgirls. Working there meant that I could skip the line and avoid paying cover — the ultimate job perk for a party-obsessed near-twentysomething.

Admittedly, I got the job through a nifty bit of nepotism. My father, Howard Silver, owner of the Metropolitan Centre, had done some business with Harris Dvorkin, who co-founded Ranchman’s in 1972 and operated it for most of his life. My father and Harris were both members of the local Jewish community, meaning they shared an unspoken bond and supported one another accordingly.

Some bosses are beloved for being tough yet fair. Harris was just tough. By the time I met him, he was in his 70s, a diminutive man with a powerful presence. When he rolled up to Ranchman’s in his Harley-Davidson edition Ford pickup truck, word quickly spread between the employees: “The boss is here.” Things were done his way, whether anyone liked it or not. He gave orders, not suggestions, a managerial style from a hard-nosed, no-nonsense generation. It completely blew my millennial mind, but I loved his uncompromising attitude. He once asked me to throw a hot dog cart over the ridge behind Ranchman’s because he didn’t like where it was parked. A perfectly good hot dog cart.

Despite his often-grouchy persona, Harris was one of my favourite people. He puttered around Ranchman’s three-acre compound in a go-cart, either stopping to shout orders or pick up an employee. It was always an honour to ride in the cart. It meant he liked you, I think. Plus, Harris was a magical storyteller with a knack for myth-making, most evident in the way he created an aura of authenticity around Ranchman’s. He once told me a story about how he single-handedly fought off four unruly patrons who refused to leave his establishment. Then he told me that same story a few months later, only by then, it was six guys instead of four. I liked it even better the second time.

My father’s friendship with Harris afforded me a job in the maintenance department, making $15 an hour. Not a bad gig considering I was a journalism major with zero experience or skill when it came to handyman work. In the mornings, I descended into the Ranchman’s basement with my co-worker, a guff-but-lovable high school dropout named Elliott, to check the maintenance log. There, managers, bartenders and door staff recorded all of the things that had broken over the weekend: a table on the front patio, a sink near the back bar. Then Elliott and I went around and fixed stuff, which, in reality, meant Elliott did everything while I stood by and kept him company. At the end of the day, we hid in the tool shed out back and drank leftover beer, praying that nobody tried to reach us on our walkie-talkies.

That year, Cowboys Dance Hall reopened its location near the Stampede grounds. For the past half-decade, Ranchman’s had enjoyed a relative monopoly when it came to country and western bars in the city, but now they had renewed competition about a 20-minute drive north on Macleod Trail. Harris regularly sent me on scouting assignments, during which I went to Cowboys and took notes about everything from the drink specials to the music playlist. He wanted intel on his opponent. Harris knew Cowboys’ reopening posed a threat but never let on, instead showing confidence that Ranchman’s rich culture and conservative values would prevail.

The battle between Ranchman’s and Cowboys symbolized the tension between old and new. At Ranchman’s, employees were expected to purchase jeans, boots and a hat from Lammle’s. Door staffers were instructed to always greet guests by their first name, if possible. Servers had to cover tattoos, remove piercings and tie their hair in a knot before a shift. Members of the Pro Bull Riders association were always given preferential treatment. The club gave stage time to upstart local bands and never splurged to bring in big-name country acts. Ranchman’s relied on its legitimacy and strong service to attract customers.

Cowboys was decidedly less country. It had only been around since 1996. Employees wore plastic cowboy hats, tight black T-shirts and tacky gold-star name badges. Servers showed off tattoos and a generous amount of cleavage — there were even rumours that particularly promising employees received money for breast implants. The DJs shamelessly spun pop-country and the owners shelled out big bucks to bring in big-name musical acts, everything from rappers to country singers, during Stampede. For one promotion, they even dropped cash from the ceiling. In the summer of 2012, people lined up for hours around the Cowboys tent near the Stampede grounds, which, I think, spelled the beginning of the end for Ranchman’s.

In the summer of 2013, I got promoted to the role of bull operator, the greatest job ever invented. Basically, I fiddled with a couple of joysticks — one controlled buck, the other controlled spin — and whipped people around all night while listening to up-tempo country hits. I got paid $4 a ride and, on a good night during Stampede, could breeze through more than 80 riders. As part of Ranchman’s dress code, I wore a makeshift cowboy getup, complete with a flashy western shirt and pricey leather boots. Though I looked the part of a bona fide rancher, I was a certified city slicker, with baby soft hands and squeaky-clean jeans. Still, people kept riding and I made Ranchman’s some decent money. I think Harris liked that.

One night, while tidying up after shutting down the bull, a gentleman approached me with a proposition: his buddy had won the bull-riding competition down at the Stampede and he wanted to get that friend up on the mechanical bull. After I told him, apologetically, that there would be no more rides that evening, the fella flashed me a $100 bill. The financial incentive — coupled with the opportunity to send a professional bronco rider crashing to the inflatable mat — piqued my interest.

Magically, the bull was back open for business. His buddy appeared out of the darkness, saddled up and I progressively made the machine go faster. The guy stuck to the back of the bull like a bug. I felt my competence being called into question. After all, I was operator extraordinaire, master of the bull — not this guy. So I cranked the throttles to maximum, making the stuffed beast buck and spin in a menacing blur. But that guy didn’t budge. Afterward, I gave the cash to the hostess who worked with me for most of Stampede, somewhat clearing my conscience for offering the forbidden ride.

In 2016, I found out that Harris was sick. Something with his lungs. But even with his health failing, he still showed up at Ranchman’s. He rode around in his go-cart, telling the same stories, only with an oxygen tank loaded into the back. Sometimes he stopped in between sentences to catch his breath. He talked about the old days, like when they came to film Cool Runnings or how he used to ride the train with Tommy Chong, the famous comedian, and Chong would light up a marijuana cigarette in transit. Most importantly, Harris would always ask me, in that low gravelly voice, “So, how’s your father doing?”

That summer, my last Stampede at Ranchman’s, I worked as a manager. Managers make $18 an hour and work pretty much 24-7, with the promise of a fat tip payout at the end of the 10 days. They also see the weirdest things. One afternoon, we hosted an amateur wrestling event in the back tent, complete with a full-sized ring. Everything was running smoothly until one of the female wrestlers jumped out of the ring and started yelling at a fan seated in the audience. The fan dumped her drink on the wrestler, then they started clawing at one another and pulling each other’s hair. To the average wrestling fan, this might seem like some stunt built into the performance. I did, too, until my fellow manager — a tattooed gentleman named Aaron— jumped into the scuffle and tried to separate the women. Apparently, the wrestler had a personal dispute with someone in the stands. After the kerfuffle, Aaron and I had to decide whether to eject the wrestler — as per Ranchman’s policy against fighting — or let her stay so that the show could continue.

After Harris died, in 2017, the family sold Ranchman’s to another ownership group. Harris was the first — and best — boss I ever had. I’ll remember his exceedingly dry sense of humour and the way an unmistakable kindness sometimes revealed itself from his otherwise straightforward, stubborn demeanour. The new owners promised to keep the spirit of Ranchman’s alive, but for anyone who frequented the bar over the years, there was an inescapable feeling that all of its energy left the building when Harris died. At least that’s how it felt for me.

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