Joe McBride, left, chats with rancher JW Simonson as they stand in front of Ranch-Land Western Store’s massive wall of boots. Ranch-Land, the 64-year-old Sandhills store, sells leather boots made from bison, wild boar, alligator, ostrich, shark, elephant, hippo, capybara and more. (Photo by Haley Miles / Flatwater Free Press)

This story was originally published by Flatwater Free Press.

Mort McBride was walking down Main Street when a man stopped him with a question.

“Is there a place to buy a decent pair of boots in this town?”

McBride was standing in front of a building he’d recently bought. It was 1959, and he knew he wanted to start his own business. He just didn’t know what kind of business, until he answered the question.

“Well, there will be shortly,” he said to the man on the street.

And Ranch-Land Western Store was born.

“They started the store on a wish and a prayer, was all it was,” Mort’s son – and now Ranch-Land’s owner – Joe McBride said.

Three generations of the McBride family have helped outfit customers from near and far in boots and hats through Ranch-Land’s 64 years of business.

Tucked away in the Sandhills of Nebraska, the store is filled to the brim with history and memories. It has survived a fire that threatened its existence; booms and busts in the cattle market; the economic strain of a global pandemic.

Now, Ranch-Land is finding its footing in the 21st-century world of online shopping and big box stores – and betting that its personal touch and rich history will keep hold of loyal longtime customers while reeling in new ones, too.

Shortly after Mort McBride and his wife Louise started selling western wear to the people of Ainsworth, Nebraska, they moved Ranch-Land across the street to a bigger, four-floor building with its own decades-long history. Before it was Ranch-Land, the building was a JCPenney. Before that, a combination hardware store and mortuary.

The basement that once stored the embalmed bodies of Ainsworth’s recently deceased is now a workshop where the McBrides craft leather goods and turquoise jewelry. Ranch-Land fills the top three floors with western wear that people travel hundreds of miles to get to, Joe McBride said.

Mort McBride, who founded Ranch-Land in 1959, sold it to his college-age son, Joe McBride, in the 1980s, then continued to work in the store. (Photo courtesy of Joe McBride)

A clanking cowbell announces entering customers. Above the door, a portrait of Mort and Louise watches over perusing shoppers.

“The best damn western store in these parts,” a hand-painted sign next to the photo declares.

To the left, there’s a wall of boots in a rainbow of colors and a menagerie of leathers – boots made from conventional animals like bison, wild boar and alligators, and more exotic creatures. Ostrich, shark, elephant and hippo, even capybara.

Straw and felt hats are stacked on the opposite wall, with perfectly domed crowns and flat brims that get hand-shaped by Joe McBride.

Joe McBride has been a fixture at the store almost literally since the day he was born – Mort and Louise took baby Joe to the store on their way home from his hospital delivery in 1965.

“I guess it was determined that I was probably going to be a part of this place,” he said.

He and his sisters grew up here, napping on saddle blankets underneath leather saddles, and helping their dad run the ancient hand-crank cash register.

By 12, Joe McBride was on the payroll, learning how to fit boots and shape hats with steam and his two hands. He shaped his first hat on that first official day of work. By lunch, he’d sold it off his head. It wouldn’t be the last time Joe McBride would sell the hat off his head or the boots off his feet.

Joe McBride uses steam to shape a hat. “Joe making something for you feels important and meaningful,” says Omaha customer Erica Wassinger. (Photo by Haley Miles / Flatwater Free Press)

When he was in college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Mort called with a proposition: “I have a man here that wants to buy the store. But I’d rather offer it to you first.”

“I thought about it for about 30 seconds. ‘You know, that’s probably what I need to do in my life,’” Joe McBride said.

He took over in 1988 and modernized the store. He introduced new styles of shirts. He retired the hand-crank adding machine and bought an actual calculator he taught his father to use. He kept the old cash register until it broke beyond repair.

The store chugged through as the ranchers and farmers of the Sandhills clawed their way out of the farm crisis of the ’80s. Joe and his wife Lori’s kids grew up helping count cash behind the counter and fitting customers with boots. As other western stores throughout the Great Plains closed, Ranch-Land’s clientele started to travel from farther and farther away.

“Used to be every little town had a western store,” Joe McBride said. “We’ve persevered longer than most of them.”

Then a fire nearly closed Ranch-Land for good – but helped convince a third-generation McBride, Joe’s daughter Rhe’Ann McBride, to join the family business that neither father nor daughter ever thought she’d join.

The 2017 fire started on Christmas night in the alley behind the store. It spared the building itself, but the smoke and soot destroyed all four floors of inventory – thousands of boots, hundreds of hats and racks of clothes the McBrides had to get rid of.

“Our whole world just kind of got turned upside down,” Rhe’Ann McBride said. “I just said, I have to be there. I quit my job and moved home.”

Once she had returned to Ainsworth and helped clean up the fire, she and her parents faced their decision. Should we keep Ranch-Land open? Or should we take the insurance money and wave goodbye?

“We debated hard,” Joe McBride said. “It was the customers that made us stay. Everybody kept saying, ‘we need you back, we want you back.’”

Rhe’Ann McBride has stayed on ever since, modernizing the operation as her father did 35 years before.

She brought in more options for women’s wear and reorganized the store without losing its original charm. She turned a leather-carving hobby into a line of custom leather purses, belts and more carved by Rhe’Ann and sewn together by her mother, Lori.

“(My parents) wanted us to find our own passions … that we loved as much as my dad and my granddad loved the store,” Rhe’Ann McBride said. “It just so happened that I found that love, too.”

She’s also introducing Ranch-Land to 21st-century technology. She launched the store’s Instagram and Facebook pages. She rebuilt the Ranch-Land website, and is now manually uploading the store’s entire inventory onto the internet.

The updated website works as a tool for new and longtime customers – and a lure, too, Rhe’Ann McBride said. Loyal customers who live hours away will see something they like online, get in their cars and drive to see it in person.

“With online shopping, there’s so many other factors that play into decision-making as far as the customer buying process goes,” Rhe’Ann McBride said. “We’re really trying to focus on those things that make us special, that help us stand out from your online retailers or your big box stores.”

Finley, Rhe’Ann McBride’s dog, is the unofficial mascot and greeter at Ranch-Land Western Store whenever Rhe’Ann is in the store. (Photo by Haley Miles / Flatwater Free Press)

Special things like Ranch-Land’s hand-made custom carved leather. The hats shaped in-house specifically to each buyer’s head. The boot designs and handmade saddles you can only find at Ranch-Land.

But beyond the exclusive goods, it’s the personal touch that keeps people coming back. Stepping into Ranch-Land feels like visiting a longtime neighbor, Omahan Erica Wassinger said.

With family roots in the Sandhills, Wassinger grew up with the annual tradition of going to Ranch-Land in the summer to get fitted for new cowboy boots. She carries on the tradition with her own kids.

When tourists visit her Sandhills cabin, she tells them: Go to Ranch-Land. She says the same to Omaha friends traveling west.

“It does feel timeless, because it’s this iconic western moment,” Wassinger said. “And then you have these kind, warm relationships. Joe making something for you feels important and meaningful.”

On an August morning, a Sandhills rancher well-acquainted with Joe McBride and his store comes in looking for a new hat – new, but not different. He picks up a stiff straw hat, the shiny version of the dirty, worn hat on his head.

Steam wafts up from a vent on the table as Joe McBride carefully curves the new hat into the perfect shape.

As Joe shapes, and he and the waiting Sandhills rancher chat, the walls surrounding the pair tell the history of the McBrides and the customers they’ve served over the past 64 years. Century-old boots and antique spurs. A fringed jacket that belonged to Grandma Louise, the leather soft to the touch from years of wear. An old clock with a figurine of a cowboy atop his horse – stolen from Mort’s bunkhouse when he left to fight in World War II, but one he was reunited with decades later after the tradesman bought a storage unit filled with antiques.

And then there’s the memory tree – dried out branches hauled nearly a thousand miles from the deserts of El Paso in 1961.

They hang the hats of dearly departed ranchers and friends on the tree’s branches. Some are tattered and dusty from days in the fields and feedlots. Some were purchased right here at Ranch-Land. Some are older than Ranch-Land itself.

“That’s Granddad’s hat,” customers will say, pointing out a piece of their own family history to the member of the McBride family helping them.

“People come in and talk about how they shopped with my granddad, and now they shop with my dad, and then they shop with me,” Rhe’Ann McBride said. “All these memories and experiences live in this building, in this business. It’s so much more than just selling clothes and boots.”