Monowi, Nebraska. Population: 1
The population sign outside the town reads “1.” The one refers to Elsie Eiler, 77.
That makes Monowi, Nebraska the smallest incorporated town in America.
I was assigned to go there recently and produce a photo story to go with text that had been written much earlier. With this place really in the middle of nowhere it was problematic to send a photographer just to shoot this one person.
But when my editor saw that it was “only” a four hour drive from Omaha where I would be going to cover Warren Buffett and the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, the decision was made for me to make the trip to see Elsie.
The first shock when landing in this off the beaten track kind of place was the lodging. The nearest hotel (30 minutes from Monowi) was really a small motel, kind of like the Bates Motel in the movie “Psycho.” And yes I stayed in the room next to the lobby. I made sure there weren’t any peepholes.
When I first met Elsie Eiler the night I arrived she was serving up burgers and beer to her friends and neighbors, all patrons at the Monowi Tavern which she runs. Her sign behind the bar reads “coldest beer in town” which of course it is since it’s the only beer in town. For that matter it’s the only business.
Elsie opens the bar at 9am for breakfast and delivers last call around 10pm, or earlier if the place is empty. When she’s not in the bar she drives to see her neighbors or her children in her car sporting the “Monowi 1” license plate.
If you look at an online map you will see all the town’s streets displayed. There’s Louisa, Butte, Broad, Brule, Marion and Paulina Streets shown; all appearing as if they are really still there.
But when you get to Monowi you see that mostly all that’s left for roads are grassy paths that look more like clearings in a wood than streets.
The town stop sign hasn’t been needed in many years on Louisa Street where all that’s left are three crumbling buildings. Some of the other streets have nothing to show people were ever there.
Elsie showed me photos of the town in its prime back in the 1930’s when there were some 150 people living there. Established around 1900 there once was a two-story high school (since torn down), two grain elevators (one remains, that her husband used to run) and a one room elementary school where Elsie went to school for 8 years long, long ago. The school is still standing alone on a hill waiting for children that haven’t come there for decades.
If you want to check out a book at the famous town library you ask Elsie for the key to the building then walk the 50 feet next door, let yourself in and pick what you would like to read. Just write your name down on the pad by the library door before you lock it back up.
I wanted to get a feel for Monowi before concentrating on photographing Elsie so I went to the town early in the morning the day after I arrived.
Wandering the paths and peeking into the crumbling buildings was fascinating and sobering at the same time. This would be a ghost town except for the one living (and elderly) soul left but signs of a vibrant past life were everywhere.
The last event at the town church was the funeral for Elsie’s father over 50 years ago. That once tidy little building is now dying itself. Bugs and animals are now the only occupants that come in the open front door, or through the hole in the roof.
In a yard is a lawnmower abandoned in the middle of a lawn with the grass growing over it as if to show victory over the long-dead machine.
There was a pair of moth-eaten overalls that a farmer hung up on the wall in his house a half century ago never to be worn again.
There was a homemade basketball ring with a slowly rotting net.
There was a house decaying from the outside in, holes in the roof letting in the pouring rain and the driving snow. The floor was collapsed and the walls were folding over on themselves like a book being closed.
Elsie has been asked a million times why she stays and the answer is simple – she likes it here. She has a wide network of many, many old friends in the area who she gets to see every day. Each winter she visits her family in sunny Tucson, Arizona but after a few weeks gets anxious to get back to the little town where she grew up.
When Elsie finally can’t take care of herself anymore she is resigned to the fact that she too will have to close the book on Monowi. In the meantime, stop by and join tourists from around the world that still come into the tavern for a bite to eat and a brew.
Because it’s true what they say – the Monowi Tavern has the coldest beer in town.