From the well-worn saddles, riding and ranching photos, cowboy hats and other memorabilia crowding the walls to the battered doors and long wooden bar, the H-B Saloon is rated by many the best cowboy bar in California and has long been associated with the Oakdale Rodeo that happens each year just a little further east along F Street from the establishment.
Owner Mike Bacigalupi can recite a long list of local rodeo champions who have passed through the doors ranging from Troy Murray, Trav Cadwell, Ted Nuce, Harley May, Bill Martinelli and Ace Berry to Sonny Turman, Jim Erickson and the trio of Reg, Jerold and Leo Camarillo.
He introduced two men drinking coffee and brandy on a recent morning as retired rodeo rider Jim Charles who competed in his first rodeo here in 1956 (he retired in 1980) and his own son Bo Bacigalupi as a current bull rider who is a three-time Sierra Circuit champion and won the recent Layton Rodeo.
“He should be a roper. He ropes much better than he rides a bull. But the bull riding attracts the girls,” commented Camarillo of the younger Bacigalupi. Also present Wednesday, Camarillo is a former rodeo rider who was a two-time champion and 19 times a finalist at the National Finals Rodeo.
“No tabs, no checks, no one on the bar” reads a small notice behind the bar. The first two rules remain in effect at all times. The third gets bent occasionally. When the cowboys finish serving the local women at the Cowgirl Luncheon each year as part of the rodeo week festivities and they adjourn to the H-B, the saloon will be packed and there may well be dancing on the bar.
“If you come to Oakdale for the rodeo, you have to come to the H-B. It’s kind of the rodeo headquarters,” said Camarillo.
People come from all over the world to see the Oakdale Rodeo - Camarillo said he is teaching some visitors from South Africa to rope and ride at his ranch. The cowboys gather at the H-B. If you want to get a taste and learn the history of the rodeo you have to visit the saloon.
“They want to see a real American cowboy,” Camarillo said of the foreigners. “Whether from abroad or the States, once they’ve been here, they will often set their vacation next year to come to the rodeo.”
H-B is located downtown on Oakdale’s busy F Street just east of the railroad tracks and the Oakdale Cowboy Museum. During rodeo week it will get so busy, the crowds spill out the door .One year, the police closed the street, said Bacigalupi. Nowadays, he puts a fence around the main door to prevent anyone from actually being pushed into traffic.
The saloon is family owned and operated and a historic fixture in town. His grandfather opened the business in 1939 in a building further west on F Street near the newspaper office, said Bacigalupi. The family moved the saloon to its current location in 1953. The antique, yellow brick building, now owned by the Bacigalupi family, was raised by the Rodden Brothers in 1917 and has always housed a bar except during Prohibition.
Among rodeo fans, the Oakdale saloon is as famous as the Mint Bar in Sheridan, Wyoming and looks very similar, according to Camarillo.
The H-B provides food besides drink to both rodeo participants and spectators. Also owned by the Bacigalupis, there are a couple of spacious dining rooms attached to the saloon, which can serve anything up to a large steak and oysters suitable for a cowboy hungry from a hard day’s riding.
Jim Raw the cook, by the way, is a well-travelled man. He’s originally from Liverpool in northern England but lived in Amsterdam, Brussels and other large European cities before coming to the United States in his 20s.
The drinks at the bar are of generous size because Bacigalupi pours by hand rather than using the modern “automated shot glass” he added, and the meals are typically about half the price a customer would pay in neighboring Modesto.