Monowi: the creepy American town with only one inhabitant
Living in a big city can often get you down. Yet people gravitate towards big urban centres precisely because of the hustle and bustle of busy streets; places that thrive with life and crowds. But when you've been crammed onto a subway car that's already well past capacity or you've been trying to catch a bartender's eye while everyone else around you gets served, then living in the city can feel like something of a joke at your own expense.
Personally, whenever I end up grumpy and morose, I entertain a cosy fantasy of small-town life: of moving somewhere sleepy and peaceful - a little rural hamlet nestled in the hills, where all the townspeople know your name and nobody has a bad word to say about one another. If this resonates with you, maybe you should take a visit to a remarkable town out in the cornfields of Nebraska, where the populace has taken isolation and self-sufficiency to its logical extreme. That's because the town of Monowi literally has a population of one.
It's a community with a single lonely inhabitant and its name ironically seems to reflect the solitary nature of the settlement - even though the name derives from the Native American word for "flower." The two-building community is located in the far eastern portion of Boyd County, between the Niobrara River and Missouri River. The nearest town is Lynch, (population: 245) more than six miles away.
Monowi wasn't always a town of one though. At its peak in the 1930s, the railroad company town boasted a population of around 150 people. But as the railway line fell into disuse, and the younger inhabitants moved away to find better job opportunities in the city, the population dwindled down to just one woman: the incumbent mayor, librarian, local bartender, and sole inhabitant, 84-year-old Elsie Eiler.
Eiler's mother was a Nebraska native and her father immigrated from Germany. She grew up on a farm outside of the town, and went to high school in Lynch, seven-and-a-half miles away. After high school, she and a girlfriend went to airline school in Kansas City, then worked as reservations officers in Austin and Dallas. At 19, she married Rudy, whom she'd met in the 3rd grade, once he returned from France where he'd served in Air Force during the Korean War. They lived in Omaha briefly before settling down in Monowi and opening the tavern in 1975.
Elsie and her husband Rudy ended up being the only people left living in Monowi, long after everyone else either moved or died; but when Rudy sadly passed away 2004, she couldn't bear to leave her home. Since then the running of the entire town has fallen squarely on her shoulders, and it's a lot more work to keep it maintained than you might think. For instance, since she is the only taxpayer in the district, she has to pay her taxes to herself.
Her other duties include making an annual municipal budget request to secure state funding for Monowi's four street lights. Keeping the water running and the electricity on costs her around $500 a year, and Elsie has to work 12 hours a day, six days a week to keep Monowi's bar, library and public services afloat. For a tiny town, Monowi has a surprising amount to keep visitors occupied. Both the diner and bar are well-stocked with food and drinks and the little municipal library is stocked with around 5,000 books. The library is dedicated to the late Rudy, who Elsie says was a consummate bookworm.
Elsie has had the pleasure of welcoming visitors from 47 states and a further 41 countries and counting and doesn't get too lonely since she has plenty of friends from neighbouring towns who like to come over to her bar for a burger, a hot dog, and a cold beer. Indeed, Monowi has only become more of a tourist hotspot since national news outlets and talk shows have reported on it. It's a fact that there used to be more one-person towns in America. Just over a decade ago the United States boasted villages like Lost Springs in Wyoming, and New Amsterdam in Indiana, but the last inhabitants of these places have died now. Now Monowi stands alone... or more alone than usual at least.
But Elsie isn't perturbed by her eccentric living conditions. On the contrary, she wouldn't have it any other way. "Hopefully I will be able to stay here,” Eiler stated in an interview with Reuters. "It’s where I want to be ... I really don’t have any desire to live anywhere else. I’m perfectly happy right where I’m at now. I know I could always move closer to my children or stay with them whenever I want, but then I’d have to make all new friends again."
However, it's sad to imagine that when Elsie passes away, Monowi will turn into little more than an uninhabited graveyard by a lonesome roadside - a tiny collection of derelict buildings left to be weathered away by the elements. It will join the increasing ranks of the world's eerily empty ghost towns, where only the bravest dare venture.
Featured illustration by Egarcigu