Elsie Eiler pays taxes to herself and grants her own liquor license as the mayor, bartender, librarian and sole resident of Monowi, Nebraska.
Elsie Eiler tells me I caught her in the right frame of mind the day I rang her up at her tavern. As the last remaining resident of Monowi, Nebraska, the 83-year-old has become somewhat of a local legend and a national treasure. As such, she gets lots of media requests. She usually says no, thank you, but she was feeling generous when I called. Which leads us to our first lesson about being the sole resident of a small town…
1. You get used to people thinking of you as a novelty.
Eiler became the sole resident of Monowi in 2004, after her husband, Rudy, passed away. In the 13 years since, she’s done dozens of media interviews, appearing on the Today Show and in People, even gaining international coverage in German newspapers. “I don’t understand it, but I’ve met so many good people,” she says. At this point, Eiler doesn’t care whether she sees the coverage or not. She’s amused by people who think the publicity helps her business (she runs the Monowi Tavern) because her main customers are regulars who show up whether she’s on TV or not.
2. The world comes to you.
On the afternoon I spoke with Eiler, she had just served a group of students from China who were studying in Omaha and had made the drive out to her tavern after hearing about the one-person town. She’s found that people will go out of their way, especially in the summer, to stop by Monowi. She’s had visitors from 47 states and 40 other countries.
3. You remember your town in a way no one else does.
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.
4.You consider people 40 miles away your “neighbors.”
“When you get out in an area like this, people 20 to 40 miles away are considered neighbors,” says Eiler. “We’re like one big family. If anything happens, they’re there to sympathize with you.”
5. You rely on your neighbors—and vice versa.
Eiler doesn’t have a municipality to rely on for services, so she often counts on the kindness of her extended community. When it snows, a local farmer comes by to clear her parking lot and main street. “There’s a snowplow for the area but as a general rule, by the time he’s done with the side roads and country roads, I’m dug out by a tractor,” she shares. At the tavern, she’s the only full-time staff, though she occasionally brings on extra help when she’s expecting a big crowd, like the motorcycle group that meets there several times a year. Other than that, “whoever happens to be here, if they see I need help, they’ll help,” she says.
6. You understand if family can’t live nearby.
Once a thriving cattle-industry town aided by a central railway system, Monowi dwindled to a population of just 18 by 1980. Young people, including Eiler’s own son and daughter, left the area in search of job opportunities. She has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren living as nearby as Sioux City, Iowa, and as far off as the Netherlands. “I get lonely for my kids, but I don’t get lonely. I have too many interests and old friends,” says Eiler.
7. You have friends you’ve known your whole life.
Several of Eiler’s friends from high school still live in the area, some of whom she’s known her whole life because they were also born and raised in Monowi. “People whose parents I remember being born are bringing their kids in. That’s how it goes when you stay in one area,” she says. On Sunday nights during the winter, friends gather at the tavern to play a card game called euchre, which Eiler describes as a cross between pinochle and pitch. “Everybody plays everybody else,” she explains. “We’re usually done playing by 10 or 10:30 but a few will linger till midnight visiting. Since I’ve been by myself, my regulars have been good about not keeping me there late.
8. You view life a little differently than most folks.
Eiler acknowledges that it’s a “whole different life” out where the nearest Walmart is 60 miles away. She knows some people wonder why she stays, the sole person keeping a nearly nonexistent town afloat. She could lock up and walk away at any time if she wanted to, she says. “I get asked, what happens when you’re gone? That’s not my worry. I believe in living each day and not worrying about down the road. I’m going to enjoy it while I am alive.”
9. You’re not as lonely as people might assume.
Make no mistake, Eiler relishes her alone time: “I see people all day long, coming and going, strangers and regulars. When I go home at night, I’m perfectly happy to have that time to myself.”