Two prominent Calgary clubs share nearly the same name but couldn’t be more different. There is Ranchman’s Cookhouse and Dancehall, which is part of the unbuckled stereotype of the Stampede: a 10-day epic binge of libation and libido that wreaks havoc with livers, STD statistics and marriages.
Across the Macleod Trail at the Ranchmen’s Club, however, you’d find a more buttoned-up version of the classic event. Established in 1891, this wood-panelled, members-only establishment was championed by Sir James Lougheed as Calgary’s answer to Montreal’s St. James Club and became the stomping ground of the city’s early oligarchs. Its oldest surviving members, called the Kremlin, play cards here every Wednesday, and it’s also where members of newer powerhouses and descendants of old powerhouses – Cross, Macleod, Mannix – do a little business beneath a plaque of a member’s brand or paintings of an idealized West. (No notes or papers allowed here, only handshake deals). The networking here reaches fever pitch around this time as oil executives, Stampede leaders and diplomats sit down with flimsy paper plates full of food and some solid agendas.
The two Ranchmen may have different definitions of hooking up, but come Stampede time they are equally important to the city. The event is not just a dream vacation for prairie hedonists or rodeo spectators. It’s also vital to the city’s business class. Calgary transforms into a giant trade fair, a real-world LinkedIn collision of schmoozing and boozing that’s critical to the city’s – and in turn, the country’s – economy.
“Stampede isn’t just a spectacle. It’s a culture,” former Stampede president George Brookman told me at the venerable Ranchmen’s as I tried my first prairie oyster. “It’s not just about cowboys and chuckwagons. There is much more to it.”
I was explaining to Mr. Brookman that I was a Toronto bumpkin who like many Canadians had never been to Calgary, let alone the Stampede. Were the rodeo, chuckwagons and grandstand really just one long excuse for self-abuse or was there more to it? Did the city’s rapid response to the flood last year create a halo effect for this year? I was there for a 48-hour inhalation of a city that I always respected from afar but never understood.
By coincidence, I had bumped into the right person. The CEO of the printing company West Canadian, Mr. Brookman is known as Mr. Calgary. Tell people you’ve hung out with this force of nature and they ask you how exhausted you are. People urged him to run for mayor, but he didn’t need the two-in-the-morning irritations that come with the extra power. Spend a few hours with him and the idea seems obvious. He charges through the Stampede and knows everyone’s name, whether he is a CEO or a door-opener. That high-low sensibility carries over to his conversational style, which toggles madly between sacred and profane.
A major arts devotee, Mr. Brookman sees the Stampede going to the next level. On one hand, it’s creating a year-round agriculture education centre. He also explained how he overcame some resistance among some traditionalists and championed art. He raised $2-million to bring kid-friendly bronze horse sculptures to the fairgrounds and led the charge for an impressive venue for regional painters and musicians called the Western Oasis. “I didn’t want somewhere that people went on rainy days. I wanted a destination for real art.”
Talking about the Stampede’s challenges for the future, he said it was its ability to constructively engage animal-rights activists. Already the Stampede was under criticism for the death of a horse. “It’s as if they think we don’t care that an animal dies. Of course I feel emotional about it. It’s terrible.”
As for the more lurid side of the Stampede, he offered some wisdom: “If you’re a young man at the Stampede and you’re not getting laid, you are lazy.”