By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Ask where to eat in Moorcroft, and you’ll get a short list. Donna’s Diner will be at the top of it.
People don’t necessarily go to the diner for food.
They come for conversation and community connection.
The first thing a new customer will likely notice are all the smiles and how everyone seems to know each other’s names. Even for a stranger passing through, the feeling the restaurant is an extension of home arrives quickly.
Donna’s has been part of the Moorcroft community for nearly 60 years, customers told Cowboy State Daily. Some of its most loyal, longtime customers are former employees.
“We get a cup of coffee here with a smile, and it feels like home,” Jennifer Svalina told Cowboy State Daily.
Svalina was there recently with her mother, Diana Svalina, and a family friend, Tyler Rudolph. They went for a nice dinner, but while eating the tire on their vehicle went flat.
“We’re waiting for help,” Jennifer said. “Local help. That’s how we do it around here.”
Where Is Moorcroft?
Moorcroft is a town of less than 1,000, based on the 2020 U.S. Census, located about 30 minutes east of Gillette along Interstate 90.
The exit sign for the community advertises Devils Tower National Monument, which is 35 miles away.
Passersby are not unusual, and the diner is among the first places to come into view after taking the exit. Cars surround the restaurant, which is lit up and cheerful even as the sun falls from a cold and cloudy sky.
Moorcroft means “cottage on the plains” in Old Gaelic. There are two stories about how the town came by this name.
One claims that the town’s first postmaster, Stocks Millar, named it Moorcroft after his mother, whose maiden name was Moorhouse.
The other is that the town was named after a physician named Alexander Moorcroft, one of the region’s earliest settlers. He built his cabin in open defiance of the existing inhabitants, the Sioux Indians.
They were in the area up to 1895, according to the town’s historical account online.
No one is certain which story is true. Meanwhile, the area where the town is actually located was homesteaded by Martin H. Eckert.
How The Town Grew Up
When the railroad came through in 1892, the community got its first store, a 12-by-14-foot tent placed by a young man named Lucian Holbrook Robinson. The post office moved into the tent, sharing space with the store.
The first hotel went up five years later in 1897, built by then postmaster J.K. Somers.
Moorcroft didn’t become an actual town, though, until 1906. That’s also when the Robinson Mercantile Co. came to town, along with the newly organized Moorcroft Bank.
Sales from the new store ranged from barbed wire and sheep wagons to livestock feed and more — everything a farmer might need that could get shipped in by railroad.
Part Of The Village
Donna’s Diner customers aren’t sure who the restaurant is actually named after. Over the years, no matter who owned it, the name has stayed.
Residents, however, are proud of their little diner, which they said has fed generations of locals and visitors for nearly six decades.
“You know the term it takes a village to raise a child?” Jennifer Svalina said. “That’s how it is was in this town. Everybody was moms. Everybody looked out.”
The diner has always been an extension of that network, part of the glue that holds a diverse community of people together, whether they happen to be next door neighbors or not.
Roger Peterson, Kenny Newby and Charlie “Tuna” Schoenewald are among the café’s regulars, drinking coffee or tea most every night at the restaurant, discussing everything, including politics, religion and other subjects we all know we’re not supposed to talk about.
They are free with the jokes, teasing each other and the waitresses —the one on duty and the two who are not. The latter two came for dinner, but still offer at one point to help the one on duty.
“It’s the only café in town,” Peterson said. “And everybody knows everyone.”
The waitresses, meanwhile, seemed to enjoy pretending they are offended by all the jokes and ribbing. It’s not long, however, before they have brought out a framed photo of Peterson and the job application he filled out to become the restaurant’s official coffee drinker.
They pose with the photo, laughing and smiling all the while.
Two Claims To Fame
Donna’s Diner has another claim to fame, one that landed it on television. A vehicle has crashed through the diner – twice.
“They put it in drive instead of reverse,” Rudolph said, referring to the first instance. “It was right about here (where we are sitting.)”
The second car, meanwhile, came through the front door, taking it along for the ride. No one was killed, fortunately.
Framed news stories and photos from each incident hang on the wall of the diner. It’s an obvious conversation starter, particularly for newcomers.
“We were even on TV,” Jennifer Svalina said. “That MTV show, ‘Ridiculousness.’ It has Rob Drydek, Chanel West and Steelo Brim.”
The restaurant was rebuilt after each accident. And the lost front door was replaced with a larger one that’s wheelchair accessible.
Big, black metal bars also were placed around the restaurant to protect it from any more such accidents.
“You don’t have to worry about (vehicles crashing through) anymore,” waitress Brittany Fegler said.
For Sale To A Good Owner
Donna’s Diner is up for sale and has been for two years now.
“They want too much for it,” Peterson suggested.
But it’s also just after the pandemic, when everything has been slow, Diana Svalina said.
“I’m sure someone will buy it,” she said, adding that she’s not worried the town will lose its only café.
“When my husband was alive, we came here about every day for coffee,” she said.
Many residents in town frequent the diner, she added.
There are cans collecting money for various causes near the register. During the holidays, a veterans Christmas tree with a list of needed gifts lights up a small corner of the counter, just in front of the case where all the homemade pies are kept.
There’s also homemade fudge on the counter, and there’s ice cream that customers insist is better than Dairy Queen’s Blizzards.
But more than that, there is something you can’t order off the menu.
“Awesome memories are made for everybody here,” Jennifer Svalina said.
The fact you can order dinner as well? That’s just a bonus.