‘Let’s get this town happening again’: Reopening of historic hotel aimed at revitalizing Manitoba hamlet

Winnipeg –

A beloved Manitoba hotel closed for more than a decade is about to get a second lease on life.

Elsie’s Hotel was opened in 1940 by Elsie and Walter Kolodzinski in Tolstoi, a hamlet in the Rural Municipality of Emerson-Franklin, just over 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg, Man.

Walter died in 1983 and Elsie continued to run it until its closure, marking 68 years in business.

Wayne Arseny, tourism coordinator for the RM of Emerson-Franklin, grew up in Tolstoi and remembers Elsie’s when it was in its heyday.

“The hotel was sort of an integral part of the community for 68 years,” he said.

It was the venue for countless summer parties and outdoor beer gardens, hosting hundreds of people with live music, food and drinks.

Arseny remembers when the hotel was featured in a book by Pierre Berton marking Canada’s 100th anniversary. Elsie’s face, he said, was immortalized on two beer bottles brewed to celebrate 50 years in business.

“You might say Elsie was sort of a landmark figure,” Arseny recalled.

Daughter Adele Mayberry has fond memories of her parents’ hotel, telling CTV News Winnipeg the whole family helped to run the business through its many transformations.

“It was really personable, because Mom really knew the customers,” Adele said. “As their children grew up, they came and supported my mom.”

Adele’s husband Ian eventually came on to help run the business, transforming it into an Irish pub, a nod to his heritage, and adding a games room.

“She was like a mother to me. We just got on. She’d say to me, ‘just go ahead and do, because I know you’ll do the right thing,’” Ian said.

The bar of Elsie’s Hotel is show in a Nov. 11, 2021 photo. Many aspects of the original bar and hotel are being maintained by its new owner. (Source: Ben Holodryga)

Seeing business begin to slow, Elsie closed up shop in 2008 after decades of hard work.

She passed away two years later.

The years since the hotel closed have not always been kind to Tolstoi. Arseny, who has since moved to Emerson, said his hometown has changed.

“Tolstoi has become somewhat of a ghost town. We really have no more businesses left. The population is 25. There’s a little grocery store that’s open limited hours.”

Elsie’s kids kept the hotel to use for special events, like birthdays and holidays. They made sure to keep the property in good shape, maintaining the outdoor façade to bear their late mother’s name.

When they put it up for sale in September, Arseny saw an opportunity.

“I’m also a realtor, so I said, ‘how about if I find a buyer that will reopen the hotel?’ Well, the family thought that was impossible to do,” he said.

Then came Ben Holodryga. Born and raised in Tolstoi and at a crossroads in his career, the chance to buy and run his beloved hometown hotel seemed more appealing than retirement.

“I grew up here. We partied here. We drank here. We met friends and made enemies. We did a little bit of everything,” he joked.

Having moved to the city in the years since, he’d frequently come back to Tolstoi to visit family, stopping at Elsie’s with his kids.

“Elsie would always tell me to come and visit, and she’d always go and get a bag of chips for my kids. That was something very nice, and I remember that very well.”

Holodryga is now in the process of fixing up the hotel, aiming to open around Christmas. He plans to serve food and drinks, with a few hotel rooms upstairs available for guests.

Some things will change – like the addition of a small, commercial kitchen in one of the rooms. It’s an upgrade from one of Elsie’s former menus of pickled eggs and chips – the former she’d make at home and bring to the hotel to serve.

Other staples of Elsie’s will remain, like her memorabilia, photos, shuffleboard and, of course, the name.

“We gotta keep the tradition of Elsie’s name, because everyone knows this place as Elsie’s,” Holodryga said.

Adele said while the sale has been bittersweet, she’s overjoyed to see her mother’s legacy continue.

“I definitely had mixed feelings. I grew up there. It was my home,” she said. “But I’m grateful that Ben is taking it over and keeping her name alive.”

For Holodryga, he’s relishing the opportunity to bring life back into his hometown.

“Let’s get this town happening again,” Holodryga said. “There’s enough small towns that are just dying off, and let’s not have another one.”

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