In the heart of Nebraskan heartland, small town Eustis offers up the best and the ‘wurst’ of the good life.
BY ALAN J. BARTELS
DON BROCKMEIER (Photo Credit)
IN A SMALL TOWN like Eustis, you should always lock your car. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a box of zucchini on your front seat.
With that said, our guide, Eustis resident Don Brockmeier, didn’t follow his own sage advice while shuttling us between stops in his hometown. By the end of the day, we harvested more than produce.
After watching a flock of Eustis eagles – actually a vortex of turkey vultures riding thermals at daybreak over coffee at Don’s – we set out for a taste of the best and the wurst of Eustis.
When people think of Eustis, two things often come to mind: authentic German sausage (wurst) and the best pies known to mankind.
When we featured the Village PieMaker in 2004, Ne-braska’s Pie Queen, Judith Larsen, made 200 pies per day with the help of two part-time employees. Now, 27 workers sling filling into the 1,600 pies that are lovingly created each day before being shipped throughout Nebraska and 10 other states.
When we arrived, there were already racks full of pies, all apple, and Larsen was picking up a load bound for Grand Island. As we caught her coming, or going, she handed us a fresh, not yet boxed, still-warm pie with an aroma that convinced us apple pie ranks right up there with bacon and eggs for breakfast.
Larsen attributes much of the business’ success to her hardworking employees. Before we could cut into the breakfast pie and fully appreciate their hard work, we were already on our way to sample another Eustis delicacy.
Gregg Wolf grew up on a farm north of Eustis. He has farmed, worked as a mechanic, run a custom haying operation, and for many years ran the Wurst Haus, which is the grocery store his father purchased in 1970.
As a third-generation sausage maker, Wolf carries on the family wurst-making tradition that began in America when William Wolf emigrated from Germany in 1886.
After decades spent crafting the family’s locally famous sausage and growing the business in that small-town grocery, the Wurst Haus was splitting its bulging casing. Wolf, his cousin Deb Wolf Breinig, and her husband, Doug, recently built a 7,500-square-foot sausage-production facility thanks in part to a $255,000 community development block grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. The family operation moved from the Wurst Haus into the new plant last spring.
Lone Wolf Wurst Meats now employees 11 workers and sends thousands of pounds of its sausage, prime rib and dried sausage products across the Midwest. The company plans to add more staff, expand its presence across the country and is exploring markets in Canada, Mexico and Brazil. “We’re up and running, and people are howling about Lone Wolf Wurst Meats,” Wolf said, handing us two packages of his family’s famous summer sausage.
Next door to the old Wurst Haus, which is now H&J Grocery, Jan Yeutter is busy in the Der Deutsche Markt, a German-themed gift shop, readying an order for shipment.
The Main Street business is open seasonally, from May until mid-June during the busy spring wedding season and October through the end of December for holiday shoppers. But a call any time is all it takes to get in the door, and since someone needed a last-minute wedding gift, we were able to catch Yeutter inside.
The business started as a Eustis Chamber of Commerce project in 1993 with the intention of giving the business a stable foundation before turning it over to a prospective businessperson.
After two years, Yeutter and fellow chamber member Monika Jurjens partnered to acquire the quaint shop.
Wurstmeister Wolf owns the building which for years shared one wall with the sausage shop. Der Deutsche Markt sells Lone Wolf ’s sausages in exchange for rent. “The old fashioned barter system works well for us,” Yeutter said, adding, “When Greg was cooking over there, it would sometimes get a little smoky.”
Cuckoo clocks, German crystal, steins, Christmas ornaments and nutcrackers are sold here, too. The inventory includes pretzels made by Eustis’ young and little-old ladies, many of whom are of German descent. The twisted treats are rivaling Eustis’ wurst, and best pies, for the very best of Eustis’ kitchens voting.
SOME OF THOSE SAME pretzel perfectionists also have a way with another kind of dough. In the shadow of Eustis’ hilltop water tower, the Eustis Senior Center could be considered Nebraska’s Homemade Noodle Capital.
Cindy Schurr, the center’s director, said the facility fills several niches for the community. In addition to being a place of quilting, chess and shared stories of grandchildren and sports, the senior center is the local coffee shop. They make a lot of noodles here, too.
A big part of the facility’s operating budget comes from the sale of handmade noodles. “We ship egg noodles all over the country,” Schurr said. “One customer from Lincoln buys 200 pounds at a time.” Altogether, the 2,000 pounds of noodles sold each year generate about $7,000 to keep the Eustis Senior Center driving steadily toward the future.
When drivers end up with scratched paint, door dings or wurst – er, worse – one Eustis company has been there, banging out those dents for more than 30 years.
After Doug Keller graduated from Eustis High School and then Southeast Community College with a degree in auto body technology, he thought he could operate the best body shop around. With help from his grandfather Clarence Keller, a long-time Eustis-area farmer and county commissioner, Doug opened Eustis Body Shop.
More than three decades later, Keller has locations in Kearney, Grand Island, Lexington, Cozad and Eustis. Keller, a fifth-generation Eustis resident, attributes his success to the people of Eustis who influenced him while growing up. “I picked up their same work ethic,” Keller said. “When I opened the first shop, I received a lot of encouragement. They were happy to have me in business here.”
That same work ethic seems to shine across the community to-day. As a wildlife photographer, Brockmeier’s philosophy is never to disturb the subject at the far end of his long lens. Before he began traveling the world capturing exotic wildlife on camera, he attended country school south of Eustis until eighth grade.
Following graduation from Eustis High and after four years of ROTC while studying agronomy at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Brockmeier was assigned to a Hawk Missile unit in Germany.
Now, the veteran – who spent 38 years working in the bank his father and two uncles started – shoots hawks with his camera, not to mention other critters while exploring his childhood stomping grounds in the canyons south of town.
“You can drive through here for hours and not see another vehicle,” Brockmeier said. “But as soon as you pull over on the wrong side of the road to take a picture, or stop to relieve yourself,” he added while pouring coffee from his Thermos, “people come out of the woodwork.”
BACK IN EUSTIS, everyone recognizes Brockmeier’s truck. Some stop to shoot the breeze. Everybody waves. “It’s the people here that make Eustis the great place it is to raise a family, work and live,” Brockmeier said.
When the Monroe Shock facility closed in nearby Cozad, the lost jobs reverberated through Eustis. “It hurt,” Brockmeier said. “But our people found other jobs and our houses are full.”
He mentions how a Eustis church was able to install new windows when local ladies sold eggs and pooled their profits, and how having the church day care center has helped attract new residents. He also points out that when he speaks of the community of Eustis, he also is referring to the surrounding region and the many area farmers and others who shop here, send their kids to school here and are involved with local organizations.
When Brockmeier sold the bank, he kept the insurance company part of the business where his wife, Judy, works part-time while Don, in between photography assignments, is preparing for next year’s Wurst Tag Festival, surveying his circuit of bluebird and wood duck boxes or giving tours of his hometown of 69 years to prospective new residents, businesspeople and the occasional magazine writer.
As staunch supporters of Eustis, the Brockmeiers felt it was important to have a presence downtown, so they built their office building across the street from the body shop on a lot on Main Street left vacant when the B&D Appliance Store was destroyed in a 1988 blaze.
Black smoke rolling over Main Street caught Don’s attention while we were on our tour of Eustis, and we were soon on the scene.
In a back alley, a man decked out in knee-high black socks, knee-length blazing-red shorts and a black T-shirt seemed like the obvious suspect.There might be a fine line between a pyromaniac arsonist and a barbecued meat expert, and, apparently for the latter, there’s no dress code.
Clark Laier’s fashion sense might be questionable, but one thing is for sure: He knows how to dress a prime rib before the meat goes into his pride-and-joy smoker, which is where Laier stokes this fire.
Laier and his wife, Dianne, purchased a portable smoker in 2003. Like a phoenix rising, they soon had a successful catering business emerge from the smoky mesquite flames.
When the 1918 Eustis Pool Hall came up for sale, enthusiastic Eustis residents urged the Laiers to open a restaurant. All week long, his business, Lucky Chuck’s, is famous for its barbecued cre-ations. However, the highly sought after pies of the pizza variety are only available on Sundays.
Lucky Chuck’s opened in 2009 and the decor includes exposed brick walls, recycled barn siding that is nearly a century old and stamped tin ceilings. There is no pool table in the former billiards parlor, but there is a strange statue of a three-legged dog.
“People have started calling Clark, ‘Lucky Chuck,’ ” Dianne said. “He answers to it, now. But the restaurant is actually named after the dog. You can imagine the stir that was created when I started telling people that Lucky Chuck was dead. I had to explain, ‘No, not Clark, the dog.’ ”
When a cloud of aromatic smoke rolls from the cooker as Laier opens its smoker door, he remembers his canine friend and restaurant namesake, Charlie.
“He was a lucky dog, but in an unlucky way,” Laier said. “He was run over twice, almost drowned once, got lost in Omaha and went to the pound, ate poison, and lost a leg in a combine accident.
“We lost him in July,” said an emotional Laier. “He was 14 ½ years old. We were lucky to have him.”
The lab/heeler cross is immortalized through the custom-made statue that Laier says is a nice likeness. For time immortal, Lucky Chuck faithfully watches over Lucky Chuck’s, from his favorite spot across from the original, hand-carved wooden bar.
With the aroma of barbecuing beef in our noses and hunger pangs in our bellies, the sod house across from the Eustis-Farnam High School is our destination for a summer sausage picnic as school buses arrive for Eustis-Farnam High School’s track and field match-up against Gosper County rival, Elwood.
This grassy spot reflects the spirit and the history of Eustis through its first 127 years, from the pioneering settlers who eked a living from the harsh but beautiful prairie, to the residents of today building on that heritage to rear families and businesses. Today, things are cooking in Eustis and the fire is hotter than ever.
Now, where’s that apple pie?
HOME IS WHERE the heart is. Don Brockmeier’s heart is in photography.
While growing up in Eustis, he often pursued game. Although pictures were occasionally taken after the hunt, it wasn’t until years later that photography became important to him.
“I went to the 1984 Olympics and bought a camera with a zoom lens,” Brockmeier said. “I started carrying it on hunting trips. Turns out that I enjoy shooting wildlife with a camera more than with a gun.”
Brockmeier has photographed lions, cape buffalo and black rhinos in Africa; Alaskan grizzly bears and whales; polar bears in Canada; tigers in India; musk oxen in the Arctic Circle, and exotic birds in Costa Rica.
For Brockmeier, action can happen at any moment.
“Once in Alaska, my guide left to move the boat. The tide was going out and we didn’t want to be left high and dry. While he was gone, a grizzly came so close that all I could see in my view finder was his eye and part of his ear,” Brockmeier recalls. “He looked at me and decided that the fish were better tasting than my tough old hide.”
Despite already encountering lions, and tigers and bears, (we’re not going there) one of his most memorable wildlife encounters happened near home.
“I was checking bluebird boxes and found a large snake coiled up inside one. We live in rattlesnake country down here, but it was just a big old bullsnake. He posed for a picture on his way out,” Brockmeier said.
Other posers include Brockmeier’s eight grandchildren and wife of 49 years, Judy. He photographs school sports for area newspapers, and readers of Nebraska Life have enjoyed Brockmeier’s images, too.
With more travels planned, Brockmeier’s collection of hair-raising experiences and amazing images will continue to grow.
Even if he’s a dozen time zones from Eustis, he’ll still be home.
(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)