Having surmounted blanched testicles, the cowgirl treats herself to some shopping. Alberta Boot Company is the go-to for Stampeders, as well as cowboys like Robert Duvall, Brokeback Mountain-eer Jake Gyllenhaal and Brad Pitt, circa Legends of the Fall. The warehouse smells of leather and the walls are plastered with Stampede posters, some of which look like Harlequin romance novel covers. Behind rows of cowhide, kangaroo and alligator boots sits the factory, where women sew patterns and men hammer in soles. Some have worked for Alberta Boot for decades, and some of their machines, like the “leg and heel nailer,” are industrial beauties nearing 100 years old.
Ben Gerwing, grandson of founder Clement Gerwing, explains the perfect fit: They should be snug in the toe, lift in the heel and, most crucially, be comfortable in the width (some boots are available in seven widths). Today, Stampeders want a boot that looks beat up, “like you’ve had a Stampede or two already in it,” Gerwing explains. My eyes are drawn to a sandy, mid-calf suede pair, price tag $260.
I tuck my grey jeans into my new boots, a serious cowboy faux pas until last year, when the Stampede princesses successfully lobbied officials to let them wear their skinny jeans slid in. “That’s what girls are doing now,” says Gerwing, satisfied since the look showcases more of his boots.
Next up is Smithbilt Hats, where a cowbell on the door announces my arrival with a jangle. This is where the white hat, now a symbol of Calgary, earned its fame in 1948, when Smithbilt’s founder, a Belarussian named Morris Schumiatcher, outfitted a caravan of locals travelling to Ottawa for a Grey Cup in the signature felt cowboy hats. For the centennial, Smithbilt is offering a limited edition taupe hat made of pristine beaver felt; it sells for $1,500.
While the hat bodies arrive from countries like Portugal, the hats are crafted on-site in Calgary. Coarse hairs are sanded off with a Black and Decker sander (this is dramatic and involves sparks and fire), brims are pressed with machines dating back to 1889, linings are sewn in, and hat buckles are trimmed with felt discarded from the brims. Larry Glasgow then shapes the hats with steam, as he has done for 24 years.
“You come here, you can smell the steam. The whole romance of the hat business is kind of fun,” co-owner Bryce Nimmo says. He takes a tape measure to my head and tells me, “That’s on the small side. I’ve seen smaller.” I get a white wool felt hat rounded by a red buckle for $80.
Properly outfitted for Stampede, I head to the Palomino, a live music and barbecue hot spot that draws a deluge of tourists from the States, Britain, Germany and Australia. “We’re, you know, the token cowboy bar downtown so busloads of tourists come in to lose their minds. It’s what they want to see,” the Palomino’s Spencer Brown says.
The cavernous, exposed-brick building housed a furniture store for 90 years and is now filled with vintage salvage, including JD barrels and a tin-lined bar. The centrepiece is a one-tonne smoker: Shipped from Missouri, it was lowered through the roof with a crane. About 750 pounds of meat gets smoked in here nightly, including the Alberta beef brisket and pulled pork that fill the invitingly named “fat ass platter.” It delivers, piled high with meat, smoked grits, baked beans, coleslaw, Yukon Gold potato mash, Jack Daniels-doused apples and bacon-wrapped deep-fried corn.
High above our table, a pink thong dangles off the head of a carved wooden mallard, a testament to the booze-soaked bedlam approaching this July. “You do get the odd guy who asks you to hold onto his wedding ring behind the bar, things of that nature,” Brown allows.
Calgarians will wearily assure you that birth rates shoot up nine months post-Stampede. (Divorce numbers are healthy too.) Which brings me to Ranchman’s, “the place to be for dining, dancing and glancing.”