At one minute after midnight on Aug. 9, 1933, Rosser “Ole” Herstedt opened his tavern just off the Lincoln Highway in downtown Paxton, Neb.
Ole’s timing was absolutely intentional; Prohibition had ended one minute earlier. Eighty-one years later, Ole’s is still around, but in a very different form. It’s now Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse and Lounge, one of the last great authentic stops along a national roadside littered with cookie-cutter franchises.
Paxton is not a big city. For many travelers, the one-stoplight burg of just more than 500 is just another I-80 exit on the way to Denver or Cheyenne. When driving through town you can’t miss the neon sign and Ole’s big storefront, and when you step inside you can’t miss the animals. You’ll want to get out your camera/phone. There are more than 200 stuffed critters on the walls.
There’s too much taxidermy to list here, but Ole’s walls hold a Russian polar bear, jungle cats, bighorn sheep, gazelles, an elephant, a rather pensive baboon, and everyone’s favorite, the legendary jackalope.
It can be disconcerting for newcomers, because while the moose and buffalo look fairly calm hanging up there, the Honduran jaguar and others look ready to come down off the wall and join you at the table. And eat your Rocky Mountain oysters.
Ole was the kind of guy my dad would call an “avid sportsman.” Herstedt’s love of hunting started out local but went global. Five years after the tavern opened he shot a large whitetail buck, had it stuffed, and hung it in the bar. No one in Paxton would have guessed that this deer was the beginning of a 35-year journey that ended up with Ole traveling the world and hunting on every continent, eventually covering the walls of the little bar with trophy animals he had shot.
Ole was getting up in years in 1988 when Holzfaster stopped in for a beer. Corky, Ole’s son, was tending bar and confided that his father was going to retire and sell the lounge and its famous fixtures to someone in South Carolina.
Despite having never owned a bar, Holzfaster bought the place soon after in a transaction he says was made easier by Ole’s cooperation and generosity.
“Ole was never a wealthy man,” Holzfaster said. “He made it possible for me to buy it.”
Holzfaster did not intend to own the lounge long-term. He wanted to find someone to take over and keep the business operational and locally owned. He’s still running it 26 years later.
There’s more to Ole’s than the animals on the walls; there’s the animals on the plates. Despite Holzfaster’s description of Ole’s as “just a meat and potatoes kind of place,” the extensive eight-page menu includes appetizers like chicken gizzards and Rocky Mountain oysters along with entrees like their “famous” chicken-fried steak. Ole’s also has a tempting dessert menu — its pies are baked daily — and it even has a pretty long wine list. But regardless of what you order, everything on the menu is cooked on the spot, to order.
Times have changed things for the better at Ole’s. Holzfaster and his wife have spruced things up from Ole’s days. They enlarged the dining area by taking over a building next door but were careful not to mess with Ole’s original formula. And they kept every last one of the animals.
The typical crowd is mostly local but always friendly. Being an avid sportsman helps; the hunting vibe is still strong years after Ole sold the place, and almost 20 years after his death. Holzfaster said that in two weeks elk hunters will be standing in line outside the door waiting for Ole’s to open for breakfast. But you don’t need to be on a hunting or fishing trip to stop in and enjoy the food and atmosphere. Once you do, you’re likely to return.
“Stopping at Ole’s is a ritual or a tradition,” Holzfaster said. “You don’t really stumble across it. You have to want to come here. It’s not a tourist attraction. It’s a small-town steakhouse with a unique décor.”
And you can eat breakfast there. Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse and Lounge opens every day at 7 a.m.
John B. Seals (on Twitter: @sparky) first visited Ole’s in 1980, ya whippersnappers. He usually skips the Rocky Mountain oysters and gets the buffalo burger, and he definitely would not refuse a second slice of pie. Thanks to Jeff Barnes for the photos.