Population, 1: Elsie Eiler is the only resident in northeast Nebraska town
By Nate Jenkins
The Associated Press Published: Saturday, March 6, 2010 10:37 PM CST MONOWI — The founding fathers must have chuckled at the impossibility of the job when they etched it into the Constitution: Count every man, woman and child along every back road and big-city avenue in the entire country.
From Key West to Nome, today’s Americans will largely get the founders’ joke yet again as the U.S. Census embarks on its once-a-decade count this year — they’re accustomed to approximations of how many people plod their shared corner of the world.
Why does it really matter, after all, that a Nebraska town comprised of a tavern, a few crumbling houses, four street lamps, and one drivable, dirt street be counted exactly right?
Or even at all?
“Because I live in it,” said Elsie Eiler, who is Monowi’s entire population. Yet Census estimates from this summer say that there are two Monowians.
“Where’s this other person?” Eiler said. “Let me know. … I don’t want to come back to my house at 11 or 12 and see someone else there.”
Monowi is located in eastern Boyd County, about 18 miles west of Niobara and on Nebraska Highway 12. It is only about five miles south of the Missouri River and the South Dakota border.
Others across the country who live in the tiniest of tiny towns, from Indiana river country to the wind-swept Wyoming plains, feel the same way as Eiler about Census counts and estimates. Proudly holding onto their identities, with the line between existence and disappearance of their villages so narrow, they insist every person counts.
So they want them counted right.
The Census estimates that there are four incorporated towns with just one person. But when contacted by The Associated Press, residents in three of those places — Monowi; New Amsterdam, Ind.; and Lost Springs, Wyo. — say they aren’t the lonely souls the Census says they are. The population of the fourth — Hoot Owl, Okla. — could not be verified by the AP.
A resident of one of the supposedly one-person towns — New Amsterdam, Ind., listed that way in the 2000 Census and in last summer’s bureau estimate — concedes that people there may have something to do with the statistical snafu. Mary Faye Shaffer cut the Census little slack, and said the town is bent on getting an accurate count this time around.
In the general store that she owns — the only business in town, unless you count “a bait shop that’s there if they want to be there” — Shaffer tallies residents of New Amsterdam until she reaches 19.
She proudly mentions the couple who moved to town after retiring from Wal-Mart, and she brags about the beauty of the area, mentioning how she can see the scenic Ohio River from her backdoor.
But bring up the Census, and her melodic Southern accent hits some sharp notes.
“It’s embarrassing — ‘You live in a town with one person?’” Shaffer says people say to her.
“People call here just because they think there’s only one person. You wouldn’t think the government would screw up this bad.”
Shaffer surmises that the count went wrong in 2000 because the town doesn’t have a post office. That means residents have listed nearby towns that have post offices as their addresses.
Townsfolk met with a Census official last year and spread the word for everyone to write on their Census forms that they live in New Amsterdam, regardless of different mailing addresses.
Back in Monowi, tucked in the rolling hills that abut the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska, Eiler sits in the Monowi Tavern where she sells beer for $2 a bottle and makes $2.50 hamburgers on a 35-year-old, four-burner stovetop.
She describes a previous battle with the Census to be counted right: After the 1990 Census, she wrote to the now-deceased broadcaster Paul Harvey, enlisting his help. He mentioned the miscount on his popular radio show.
But nothing changed.
Eiler became the town’s only resident when her husband, Rudy, died six years ago. She lives in a mobile home next to a library constructed in memory of her husband, and makes the short walk past a long-closed grocery store every day on her way to the bar. She stays until at least 10 p.m.
Besides bartending and cooking for regulars who are as unvarnished as the splintered, plywood floors in the bar, Eiler works on town business like the annual budget — about $500 a year, mostly the electric bill.
It’s done at “city hall.” That’s an old desk at the end of the 30-foot bar, near a table where Bill Spelts has taken his usual spot.
There’s plenty of beer seven miles down the road in Lynch, where Spelts lives. He comes to the Monowi bar, he says with a crooked grin and laughs from his cronies, “because the beer is 25 cents cheaper.”
But the real reason he and the others show up day after day, year after year, is resting her head on her hand as she watches the bull fly.
“Because of Elsie,” Spelts says seriously without looking at the woman to his left, Monowi’s unique resident.