As the mayor, only voter, and sole resident of this incorporated village, Elsie Eiler is pretty used to people asking why she remains here as population: 1.
“But this one fellow, he just kept at it. He kept saying, really, why do you stay?” recounts Mrs. Eiler. “I finally said, ‘There’s something you don’t understand. Nobody is keeping me here. I am here because I want to be here.’ He looked at me like I was crazy.”
Eiler is not crazy.
She’s not even that unusual in broad, sparse rural America. Out here, community is defined less by the people who live next to you and more by the people who would help you if you need it.
And in that, Eiler has a thriving community. Like Rocky Wilson. He strolls in the side door of the tavern operated by Eiler and her late husband since 1971, the only working building left other than the trailer she lives in behind the cafe. No need for salutations. Mr. Wilson heads to the cooler and helps himself to a bottle of pop.
He throws down a dollar, but Eiler ignores it and sizes him up sharply.
“You feeling strong today?” she asks.
“Watcha need,” Wilson shrugs.
Eiler had pulled her car up to the cafe last night after getting groceries in Spencer, 20 miles away. She just slightly bumped the motorcycle parked there by another regular, toppling it down. She giggles, embarrassed. Could he pull it upright?
“Sure,” says Wilson, ambling for the door. “I’ll be back to throw out those cardboard boxes.”
When Eiler grew up on a farm outside Monowi, it was a busy little cluster of farms and businesses, with a population of more than 100. She went to a schoolhouse with four grades in one room, then took a bus to the high school in Lynch seven miles down the road.
She met Rudy Eiler in school. When he graduated, he went to France in the Air Force. “All the boys went into the military then. There was nothing to keep them here,” she says. Eiler and a girlfriend headed off to adventure, too. They went to airline agent school in Kansas City, and then worked in Austin and Dallas.
“We went with the big idea we’d be stewardesses, but you had to be 21 to be a stewardess. We were only 19.” They stayed in city-life for a year, “but neither one of us cared much for it. We knew we wanted to come back.”
She did come back, and got married to Rudy. They farmed for a bit, but then Rudy, a reader and all-around friendly fellow, suggested fixing up the old café and bar in town to run it. “Fine by me,” Eiler recalls saying. “Baby pigs are cute, but there’s nothin’ cute about them when they get big.”
But by then, the restlessness that defined America’s character – the gold-prospecting, homesteading, land-hungry push westward that had left the countryside seeded with small farms and towns – had passed.
Rural America began slowly to empty out. Monowi’s three groceries closed. Small farmers sold to big, and left. The post office closed. The other tavern in town settled into the ground. The last funeral held at the wood frame Methodist church was for Eiler’s father in 1960, and a birch tree rose to wrap itself around the abandoned building.
Travelers emerging from the broad cornfields of eastern Nebraska to the folded terrain skirting the Missouri River on Highway 12 saw the green road sign announcing Monowi change from Population 11, to 3, and then to 2. When Rudy died of cancer in 2004, the sign changed again.
Rural towns all over are declared “dying.” It is a too-harsh diagnosis. They are certainly emptier – one can drive the long, straight roads of Nebraska at night, and only occasionally see a solitary light in a window twinkling in a sea of darkness. Seven of Nebraska’s counties had a population of less than one person per square mile in the 2010 census.
But they are not dying. People stay because here is more appealing than there – the there of a city, of a suburb, of a retirement home or a room in their daughter’s home. They do the work they know. They drive for a half-hour to visit friends they know. Some stay to raise kids. Some stay to harbor memories.
“When Rudy went, a lot of people thought I would be just close the door and leave,” says Eiler. “But why? All my friends are here.”
She has a daughter in Tucson, Ariz., and a son near Sioux City, Iowa. Her daughter flies in each November to help with the crush at the café during deer-hunting season, and Eiler often returns with her to Arizona for a few weeks.
“Oh, I’d be welcome to live with either one,” she says of her grown children. “And I could do it, if I have to. But then I’d have to make friends all over again.”
Instead, she walks down to the squat, white tavern, every morning except Mondays – she’s given herself one day off. The place is a bit worn. On the front of the plain building she has put a beer sign proclaiming the “World Famous Monowi Tavern.” She puts on a pot of coffee for some of the regulars who drop by, even though she doesn’t make breakfast. Come lunchtime and dinner time, though, she will whip up meals from the menu posted on the wall. Burgers $3.50, gizzards $4, steaks $14.75.
She does it all herself. But “if I get busy, somebody will jump up and help.” Between orders, she hand-washes the dishes or sits at the table to visit. There’s a steady stream of visitors. Some regulars drive 10 miles or more every day to check on her and swap stories—many grew up near Monowi and did not stray far. Gayle Heiser heaves down on a chair, and Eiler brings out a photo of them together in elementary school, posing over a Rodeo red wagon.
Other people drop by because they had heard of the town of population one, or had read about it on Facebook posted by other visitors – Eiler doesn’t have any use for computers or a cellphone. On a recent day, Denny and Judy Sloup drove 175 miles to say they had come here, and buy a T-shirt and cap that Eiler sells from a table in the tavern. Before they leave, the 80-something proprietress asks them to sign her guestbook – volume three in her collection.
“How could anybody say I’m isolated when I’ve had visitors from 47 states and 41 countries?” she demands. She does the annual paperwork to keep Monowi an incorporated village “just because I feel like I’d be letting the community down” she says, if she didn’t.
In the winter, she hosts a regular Sunday night came of Euchre, with up to two dozen buddies. She closes “whenever everybody decides to go home” – usually around 9 or 10 p.m. When they leave, Monowi’s population returns to one.
“Believe me,” she says with emphasis. “When I lock up and go home at night, I’m perfectly happy.”