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Museum Musings: The real story of The Longhorn Saloon

e-museum musings 29.27
The Longhorn Pub in December 1981. The hand-painted sign is a far cry from the slick branding you will see there today.

While you may have heard wild stories about Texans driving their longhorn cattle through Whistler to the Cariboo, these are cover stories for the real series of events that led to the naming of The Longhorn Saloon in Whistler. 

It all started when the phone rang in the Vancouver office of lawyer and businessperson Dick Gibbons. On the other end of the phone line, selling shares for a “terrific” stock, was a man with a terrible stutter. Dick said of this phone call, “I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogs. Growing up on the railway tracks in Burnaby I know what it is like when you are considered an underdog. So after hearing this I said, ‘OK, I’ll buy some.’” Making a fairly large purchase, Dick received a certificate for his shares in the Canadian Longhorn Petroleum Company. Not long after the company started trading on the stock exchange, it went out of business and the shares became worthless. As a reminder of this lesson, Dick continued to keep the share certificate on his desk.

In Whistler in the early 1980s, interest rates reached up to 22 per cent. Many developments were halted as owners, developers and contractors faced economic hardship. Dick Gibbons did not set out to run a pub; he ended up running The Longhorn Pub because he could not sell it—nobody was buying at this time. 

The Longhorn Pub opened on Dec. 23, 1981, almost 11 months before the residential units of the Carleton Lodge were completed. After a successful opening and holiday season, the Whistler Question remarked on the “small miracle and lot of hard work” that allowed The Longhorn to open before the holidays. According to the newspaper, on December 21, The Longhorn was an empty shell, with workers painting and dismantling scaffolding while floor tiles dried. Then, in just 48 hours, it was open for business and selling cold drinks and hot food. 

Prior to opening, representatives from the province’s liquor licensing branch said during a call that they would approve a liquor licence, they just needed a name to put on the certificate. Still sitting on the corner of his desk, Dick Gibbons saw the worthless share certificate for Canadian Longhorn Petroleum Company, and thought, “Aha, I’m going to get some value out of this yet,” and The Longhorn Pub was born! Later, when the naming rules were relaxed, it was officially changed from pub to The Longhorn Saloon. 

Before the deck was completed, there was an orange plastic fence to indicate the boundaries of The Longhorn. During the ski season, despite patrons standing in the mud outside with no chairs to sit on, there would still be a line up to get inside the fence for a drink. 

Summer was a different story. When Dick Gibbons called manager Gavin Yee to check on business he said, “Well it’s been kind of slow.” How slow exactly? Despite being late in the afternoon, the total sales for the day were one pack of cigarettes. To encourage summer recreation, they tried everything to get the momentum going. They built a backstop at the old Myrtle Philip School and hosted slo-pitch tournaments. Volleyball courts and a horseshoe pit were built in front of The Longhorn patio and games would run throughout summer. 

Eldon Beck’s vision of a bustling Whistler Village in summer encouraged Dick Gibbons to invest in Whistler during the original proposal meeting in 1979. Although it was a slow start, that vision has now been realized, with summer visitation outpacing winter. Likewise, with its long lines, pumping music and gyrating dance floor, The Longhorn Saloon is a Whistler institution. The luck of The Longhorn did indeed turn around.