Words & Deeds

Ranch Club’s future: Who knows? At least we have (some) horse history

Although the palomino atop the Ranch Club is famous locally, it isn’t the first horse up there. And when the nightclub opened in January of 1950, there was no horse at all.
Although the palomino atop the Ranch Club is famous locally, it isn’t the first horse up there. And when the nightclub opened in January of 1950, there was no horse at all. mdeeds@idahostatesman.com

The Ranch Club in Garden City has closed after 67 years. It’s not the first time the nightclub at Chinden Boulevard and Orchard Street has done this. Details are scarce. The palomino above the sign stays silent when I ask it questions. Maybe I should change my name to Wilbur. All we truly know is what the marquee now claims: “Da horse back soon” and “Returning soon. Go Braves.”

The void of information has generated speculation on Facebook: remodeling, new ownership, slinging drinks within months.

Only time will tell. It’s hard to be confident in a divey restaurant and lounge that communicates primarily through its marquee — particularly “da” one there lately. Cycling through owners, the Ranch Club has evolved since it was sold in 2002 by its longtime operators, the Arana family. In 2014, KBOI-TV Channel 2 did a story when the marquee treated passersby to the message “MONDAY NIGHT COME GET **** UP” — except those asterisks were the actual f-word, all uppercase, with a single letter replaced by a question mark.

Still, it is a local landmark. The walls are filled with memories. And carcinogens. The Ranch Club still allowed smoking, seeming to exist in another time. The building was moved to Garden City in pieces from New Plymouth in 1949. Until gambling was made illegal in 1953, slot machines cranked away. A scene in Clint Eastwood’s 1980 movie “Bronco Billy” was filmed out front.

“My dad had to put up a sign for the filming that said, ‘Merle Haggard appearing nightly,” Trina Arana-Barrett told the Statesman in 2002. “He got calls for a month afterward. Everybody wanted to know where Merle Haggard was.”

The Ranch Club’s rearing palomino will need to be rescued, even if the smoky bar is not. Imagine a Boise cage match featuring that horse, Rudy the Rooster (Jim’s Coffee Shop, now Capri Restaurant) and Betty the Washerwoman (Maytag building, now Cucina di Paolo restaurant). I’m putting my money on hard-working Betty. Her biceps must be huge.

The Ranch Club’s future might be questionable, but one thing became certain when news broke that it had shuttered: Online commenters have differing ideas about the palomino’s history.

Trina Arana-Barrett’s family owned the Ranch Club for 52 years. “It was a good ol’ place,” she recalls fondly. Trina tells me that the horse did not come from a bar in Ontario, Ore., as some have claimed. Or from a Las Vegas casino. The palomino was made for the Ranch Club, she said. “It was never on any other business.”

That said, I had to remind Trina that the horse is not the original. How do I know this? Because there’s black-and-white photographic proof of a different rearing stallion atop the Ranch Club. It had a cowboy on it waving an illuminated lasso.

“Oh, yes, yes, yes! I forgot about that one,” Trina exclaimed. “And that’s funny! Because that horse was on our matches down there forever — the horse with the lasso.”

Trina promised to ask her mom, Maggie Arana, if she could remember how the horse with rider originated — and when the palomino replaced them. Maggie will be 90 this spring.

“I don’t know if she’ll remember,” Trina admitted. “God, we forgot all about the lasso horse! I don’t think anybody is alive to tell us that, to be honest with you.”

She was right. Maggie didn’t know.

At least one Facebooker remembers that first horse, commenting: “I think the rider blew off in a storm about ’63, ’64. They left the saddle on for a couple of years, but people kept trying to climb the roof and pose, so the saddle had to go, too. The lariat was a huge neon circle that looked like it was spinning.”

That all sounds plausible, right?

Trina was able to verify another gem of information. The current palomino suffered through a penoplasty operation after a criminal chopped off his, um, goodies.

“Yes, his ‘private parts’ were removed in the late ’90s!” she confirmed.

Cross-state rivals Boise State and Idaho played a college football game that weekend.

“Coincidence?” Trina pretended to wonder.

That poor bronco — we shall fondly nickname him Bobbitt — paid the price. Worse yet, the Vandals, er, vandals, were never caught.

Gee, who could have noticed some guy scaling the Ranch Club roof and performing barbaric surgery bathed in neon light on Chinden Boulevard?

In retrospect, that crime took serious cojones.

“We all laughed about it,” Trina remembered.

Within days, the Ranch Club’s sign company replaced the horse’s missing manhood, she said.

Will the anatomically corrected steed ever ride again? Will the Ranch Club reopen?

If da horse tells me something, you’ll be da first to know.

Michael Deeds: 208-377-6407, @michaeldeeds