Small-town feel makes rural Ely home, sweet home

Ely is a hoot and a holler on Saturday night. Come Sunday morning, its frosted air is so quiet you can hear a crow call to the sunrise.

Located approximately 250 miles north of Southern Nevada, Ely attracts snowbirds and bikers, hunters and anglers. There are miners, ranchers and state prison officers, and an increasing number of refugees from Las Vegas and as far away as Hawaii.

Debbie Lee, a 1975 Clark High graduate, moved with her children to Ely three years ago.

She works as a bartender at the Jailhouse Motel and Casino and doesn't regret putting the bright lights of the big city in her rearview mirror.

"I got tired of Vegas," she said. "It's East L.A. When I moved up here, I just wanted a slower pace."

In Ely, her kids can ride their dirt bikes and participate in a smaller school system. She doesn't miss the big city that Las Vegas has become.

Like other spots in Ely, the Jailhouse surprises newcomers with its excellent steakhouse and affordable menu. Penitentiary food never tasted so good, and you'll have to travel a long way in this country to find a jail-themed casino and restaurant.

"We're eating dinner in Cell No. 6," my daughter, Amelia, said during a recent visit.

"We'll bust out after dessert," I replied.

Then there's Mr. G's Villa, maybe the most pleasant atmosphere in the whole town. With its Italian menu, homemade soup, specialty pizzas and salads, and French press coffee, the quality is remarkable.

Brothers Brad and Chris Lani created Mr. G's and Maggie's Lounge, and are in the process of restoring the old Ely Theatre.

The Lani brothers have more than 100 relatives in the Ely area, and the family has been a part of the community since 1876. But for the past 15 years they'd lived in Maui, where they ran restaurants and a successful catering business.

When their folks retired to White Pine County, they decided to come back to a place that held a special meaning for them.

As children, they spent their summers at the Yelland Ranch, about an hour outside Ely.

"We've always had great affection for the place," Brad said. "We both decided to come back and start anew here."

Of course, the Lani brothers had an advantage over some transplants. There are a lot of relatives in White Pine County.

"The people are great here," Brad said. "It's a very strong community feel. There's a lot of support for what you do. Because it is so close-knit and it is so small, everyone relies on each other."

When the new sheriff doubles as an assistant high school football coach, you know you've come to a small town.

Obviously, Ely residents like it that way, but they're far from opposed to growth and development.

In fact, a new ranch estates project is growing east of town, and the population is looking forward to the economic benefits a proposed power plant will bring.

And then there are the former Ely residents, who moved away in search of education and employment. A mention of their hometown in the newspaper brings back fond memories and promises to return to retire in White Pine County one day.

They'd better hurry. Some longtime residents believe the town has grown enough. Locals balance the need for visitors and newcomers with the desire to stop the clock before Ely loses its unique feel.

Susan Keough manages the Sportsworld store and has lived in Ely for 40 years. She has watched its fortunes rise and fall with the prospects of the mining industry.

"I remember when the mine closed down and 500 miners lost their jobs," she recalled. "We thought, 'Now what's going to happen?'"

But Ely endured. Now some locals believe their favorite town runs the risk of becoming too popular.

"We don't want Ely to be Anytown, USA," Keough said. "We don't want it to look like Anytown, USA. We want it to keep its appearance. We want it to look like a mining town. And yet we want it to be refreshed."

Keough's impressive sporting goods store draws customers from Reno to Las Vegas and advertises regionally. She smiles when they come through the door and smiles when they leave.

Like many of Ely's longtime residents, she knows that small-town feeling is worth protecting.

• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


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