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Last call at Ben’s Tavern in Minot

July 30, 2018

MINOT, N.D. (AP) — Motorcycles and cars are parked around a lone orange and gray building tucked away in a disappearing neighborhood. Laughing and the clinking of beer bottles can be heard from outside.

This is Ben’s Tavern, established in Minot in 1947, meaning it has spent over 70 years serving as a neighborhood bar along the Souris River. Over time, the neighborhood along with Ben’s Tavern will be demolished to make way for a green space along the river, an initiative the city of Minot started this summer. Until then, Ben’s is holding on and serving the people who love it while they still can.

The Ben’s Tavern the community knows and loves today has seen its fair share of change over the past 70 years. As former owner Nancy Hodge said Tuesday out on the patio, “If only the walls could talk.”

The history of Ben’s is kept alive by the very people that visit week after week. Even after the walls are stripped and the foundation removed, the people are what will always keep Ben’s alive.

The Minot Daily News reports that the story goes that in 1947, a man named Leo began a construction project on Sixth Street Northeast next to the home he had built himself. When neighbors saw what Leo was up to, he told them he was building a hair salon. The houses and buildings in the area were so close together, he didn’t want anyone to know it was a bar. Eventually Leo’s Tavern opened and the neighborhood embraced it.

Elsie and Ben Hodge bought the bar from Leo in 1956 and renamed the bar “Ben’s Tavern.” Since 1956, Ben’s has been a name many people have come to know in Minot.

With the railroad in such close proximity to the bar, it was a thriving railroad hangout for a time. Even though it was a bar, they would open early in the morning to offer an escape for those working overnight on the railroad.

“They would come at eight in the morning and (Elsie) would open,” Nancy Hodge, daughter of Elsie and Ben Hodge, explained. “They’d have doughnuts and coffee and then they would go from there.”

Elsie Hodge always had candy ready for the neighborhood kids that would come knocking on the door. They also hosted whist tournaments every Wednesday and pinochle tournaments every Saturday. Whist and pinochle are trick-taking card games that were played in the booths opposite of the bar back in the day.

In addition to the card games, Ben’s also had dart boards and would have darts tournaments, though it baffles regulars to this day how they packed so much activity into the small space.

Donna Hansen, a regular at the bar, recalled that what is now the back patio used to be a garden where Elsie’s children and some of the regulars would grow vegetables.

“It was a lovely garden,” Hansen said as she sat out on the patio Tuesday.

As for Ben, he passed away in November 1981 of cancer. After 25 years of owning the bar with Ben, Elsie Hodge continued operating Ben’s Tavern through the ’90s until her son and his wife, Russell and Nancy Hodge, took over the bar.

“All I can say is everybody was very, very good to us,” Nancy Hodge said. “Even to Elsie — they treated her very well. We never had trouble down here. The cops very seldom ever got called here.”

Once the railroad faded, a motorcycle club called the FUGGs, or the Fat Ugly Gross Guys, started hanging out and claimed Ben’s as their home. What was once a workers bar had turned into a biker bar. Nancy Hodge recalled that the FUGGs were always helpful and kind to her and even helped build the patio out back.

Nancy and Russell Hodge owned and operated the bar until 2008 when they leased it out to a group of 10 FUGGs.

“It was (crazy),” Ron Gefre, one of the 10 FUGGs, said. “A few of us tried to run it, half of them didn’t even come here at all, so it was all right I guess.”

Eventually, the Hodges had to sell the bar due to health related issues and Gefre stepped up to buy out the nine other FUGGs for the bar.

But shortly after came the Souris River flood. Gefre said that they had never had water at Ben’s during any other flood, but the 2011 flood was painful, especially since he had just taken ownership of the bar months before.

“Everything is brand new except the bar itself,” Gefre said. “We had to replace everything. it was like I had to buy it twice.”

Tracy Boyd, current manager at Ben’s Tavern, said they were the first bar that was left underwater to open after the flood even though Gefre was working overtime with Xcel Energy to restore power in Minot.

“The patrons came down and would work all night . with the other FUGGs and customers, they put the bar back together,” Boyd said.

A lot of donated labor and time went into the reconstruction of Ben’s, further cementing its place in the hearts of the community.

Since Gefre took over the bar, they have been doing cancer runs every June to raise money for someone in the community. After the first run, he didn’t realize it would turn into an annual event, but he was hoping and glad that it did.

“We always find somebody local. . Everything goes to whoever we sponsor,” Gefre said. “Even if we don’t know them, we’ll find somebody local that needs the money.”

They used to call the run the Hodge run in honor of Ben and Russell Hodge, who lost their battles with cancer, but it’s now just the Ben’s run. The purpose and the tribute, however, remain the same.

“We have other runs and benefits, but the first one is always for cancer,” Gefre said.

In recent years, the bar has started selling shirts and items with the slogan, “Even the cops can’t find it.” Boyd said this is partly because many residents who have lived in Minot their whole lives barely know where Ben’s is.

There’s also a story of a noise complaint called in due to a small band out on the back patio. Boyd said the police came across the bridge and would stop and listen for the music until they eventually found Ben’s.

“They don’t have much reason to come down here, it’s a pretty quiet bar,” she said. “So the slogan has been ‘Even the cops can’t find it’ ever since.”

As for the people who hang out at Ben’s now, Boyd says the environment is unlike any other bar in Minot.

“You can even come down here by yourself and it’s pretty comfortable,” she said. “It’s more like drinking in somebody’s garage than going to a bar where you don’t know people. You’re not a stranger for very long here.”

Customers and regulars have pleaded with Gefre to move the bar or reopen somewhere else. At his age and where he’s at in life, that scenario just isn’t in the cards.

“It’s a beer and wine bar, you can’t afford to buy a lot and new building,” he said. “I could never afford it . So, I guess when it’s over, it’s over.”

“The regulars are going to be heartbroken,” Boyd added. “There’s some of them that have been coming here for literally 40 years.”

Even still, the regulars will enjoy Ben’s while it still stands.

“It’s a family bar, it really is,” Donna Hansen said. “Everyone here is just friendly.”

Due to negotiations that remain ongoing with the city, Ben’s does not have a determined closing date.

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Information from: Minot Daily News, http://www.minotdailynews.com

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