Population: Elsie

Photos by Alyssa Schukar
Writing and audio by Jacob Zlomke

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At a small intersection in northern Nebraska, Monowi is little more than a cluster of buildings in varying states of disrepair. A gravel county road crosses state highway 12 halfway between Verdel and Lynch. The neighboring towns, and in fact every town in the state, dwarf Monowi in size, yet few are as notable, or have drawn crews of journalists representing NBC, CBS, BBC, Grantland, Slate, Reuters and more.

At first, the premise of Monowi sounds like gimmickry. That an otherwise prosaic town could be said to have a premise at all is novel enough. See The One-Woman Town! Which is true. Elsie Eiler is the lone resident of Monowi, making it the smallest incorporated municipality in the country. And it’s true: Along highway 12, Monowi is introduced by a green population marker reading, boldly, unironically, “MONOWI 1.”

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In an afternoon at the Monowi Tavern, the town’s only place of commerce, at least a dozen familiars visit Elsie while she takes orders, cooks, serves beers and cleans. They’re farmers, stopping in to order burgers and fries at prices that feel two decades cheaper while they talk about the best places to find morels this year and, of course, forecast rain. Or friends who live nearby, catching each other up on the area news — whose kid is taking whose kid to prom this year, how a family member is faring with her cancer treatment. On certain days, in the right seasons, her nephew comes over to mow the town’s lawns and ditches.

Elsie listens more than she talks. Regulars help themselves to cans of Budweiser and Elsie marks it in a small yellow notepad. For her patrons and friends, who mostly have known one another for decades and treat strangers just the same, she and the tavern provide common ground for people who otherwise would have little excuse to run into one another given their rigorous farming hours and the miles between homes.

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If Elsie Eiler is a one-woman community center, then she’s also de facto record-keeper. Monowi was founded as a railroad town and peaked with 150 residents in the 1930s. Among rural towns in the American West, its story is not unique. By 1990, only six people lived in Monowi. Five of them died or moved away.

The weight of Monowi’s history sags on the old buildings: paint years ago faded from wooden siding, spruce trees growing through the floor of an old chapel. But all those years are remembered in Monowi through Elsie.

Rudy’s Library, named for her late husband, hosts thousands of books and old town records. The tavern is hung with old license plates, fading photographs of families and community events — some in color, some much older. Elsie doesn’t know the story behind many of the photographs and that doesn’t bother her. Just having them is enough.

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Traffic is sparse along highway 12 through Monowi, the calm occasionally disrupted by semi-trucks and heavy farm equipment. The company on the prairie is made up mostly of birds chirping in small stands of trees and grasshoppers clinging to brittle stems. Otherwise it’s mostly recollections of fading histories and, of course, a small roadside bar that still teems with those memories and the people around here busy making new ones.

“You must be Elsie,” I say when I walk into the Monowi Tavern for the first time.

“Take a look around,” she says. “Ain’t no one else here.”

It’s the world’s oldest joke, and it’s true — kind of.

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This story was produced by Fly Over Media, a cultural education non-profit which produces, supports and publishes interactive, multimedia journalism pieces about rural and underrepresented communities. See more stories like this on flyovermedia.org.