What’s a year of social distancing when you’re Elsie Eiler, the longtime sole resident (and best burger chef) in America’s smallest small town?
Monowi, in Boyd County, Nebraska, is a somewhere far from anywhere. The town — if you can call it that; according to the US Census it’s a “village” — sits smack-dab in the flat center of the continental United States, four miles from the South Dakota border and 60 miles from the nearest Walmart, surrounded by dirt roads that wind through rolling farmland. The 535-square-mile county has a population of just 2,000; three of its towns have fewer than 10 people. Only Monowi, though, has a claim to fame, one conveniently suggested by its pronunciation: MONO-eye.
That is to say: Just one person lives in Monowi, the only incorporated, government-run town in the U.S. to have such a population. That person — that single, solitary soul — is 87-year-old Elsie Eiler. Ever since her husband, Rudy, died in 2004, dropping Monowi’s population by half, Eiler has been something of an international celebrity. She’s been featured in dozens of human interest news stories and television segments around the globe, from the BBC to People magazine, the Today show to Country Living. Arby’s set a world record in Monowi, placing the world’s largest advertising poster (7 acres) in a field near Eiler’s tavern, and Prudential Financial once filmed a commercial with Eiler as the quintessential independent woman.
For the most part, the world has long viewed Eiler as a novelty, a subject of fascination and wishful, rural-idyll projection: What’s it like to be an entire town?
Surprisingly busy, actually. As the sole resident of a one-human town, Eiler wears a stupefying number of hats. She dutifully signs whatever paperwork the state sends her to secure funding — for water, for the electricity that keeps Monowi’s three street lamps lit, for road repairs — fulfilling different municipal roles with chameleon-like ease. She files taxes and collects them herself. She is Monowi’s mayor, perpetually unopposed; its secretary and clerk, applying for liquor and tobacco licenses and signing them herself; and the proprietress, cook, and bartender of the Monowi Tavern restaurant and bar. The tavern is the only business in Monowi, and running it is Eiler’s most important and longest-standing job. It’s been hers since June 1971, when she and Rudy bought it from an older couple who weren’t much for upkeep.
Eiler works at the bar Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to whenever her last customer has gone home, some 12 to 14 hours later. (She only began taking Mondays off in 2011 after being diagnosed with colon cancer. On those days, the tavern dark, she catches up on bookkeeping and other mundane tasks at home.) “I finally just sat down to lunch,” she says when I call her one midafternoon, “and it’s a peanut butter sandwich. Very seldom I’ll cook a burger for myself, but most of the time, I just grab a cold sandwich.” She spends too much time on her feet — and is too busy — to enjoy the luxury of a sit-down meal.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, outsiders saw Eiler’s life as a novelty, peculiar in an almost cutesy, children’s book way, a little old lady and her little old tavern in her own little town. Her rustic, singular aloneness was what made her unique. Now, though, with everyone isolated and socially distanced, her life — solitary but for the tavern’s customers — has a newfound resonance. She is relatable, not extraordinary, no longer the focus of projection but of admiration, even awe. How can someone live so utterly alone?
Monowi was established in 1902 as a farming, ranching, and railroad town. Its population peaked at 123 people in the 1930s, when it had all the trappings of a lively Great Plains village: grain elevators, schools, a post office, a church, even a jailhouse. But the modernization of farming and the closure of the railroad in 1978 accelerated Monowi’s decline, forcing residents to move elsewhere in search of work. The jailhouse is now an empty rust-colored building marred by actual rust. The church’s last funeral service was in 1960, for Eiler’s father, and it held its last Sunday service not long after. Today, the hulking structure sits abandoned across the street from the tavern like a gray wooden phantom.
Even the tavern itself is a reminder of the past. Above the bar are rows of ceramic Budweiser beer mugs, nearly 40 of them, that Eiler has purchased from the company every year since 1983. There are framed pictures of regulars’ families and her own, of cornfields and the church, and lots of Nebraska Cornhuskers football memorabilia, little helmets and faded photos of the team. The bathroom is an outhouse — “which is weird,” notes one Google review that begins, “Good food!” (Three stars.)
Most of her customers come from neighboring towns, locals-turned-regulars (“I consider all of them friends”), construction workers and firefighters and police officers who stop by every week to check up on her, update her on their lives, and hear about hers. Under normal circumstances, from Thanksgiving to the first of April, a group of locals gathers around the biggest table in the tavern on Sunday nights to play the card game euchre. “It’s just for an evening of being out, I guess,” Eiler says. “We don’t do it in the summertime. The guys are too busy ’cause it’s 99 percent farmers, and they’re always doing something.”
The tavern’s food and drink haven’t changed in decades, and neither have the prices. Eiler sticks to the basics: hamburgers ($3.50, plus 25 cents for cheese), hot dogs ($1.25), cheese balls ($4). There’s also tins of Skoal and Copenhagen ($5.50) and cigarettes ($6.50). Her wholesale food supplier is 60 miles away, and the beer she serves — American classics like Budweiser, Busch, and Coors — arrives on trucks from O’Neill, roughly 50 miles away, or Norfolk, 100 miles. She’s never thought to diversify her booze offerings to keep up with trends toward hoppy IPAs and fruity sours. “Around here, the flavored stuff doesn’t move, so there’s no need in having it,” she says. “I keep what moves.”
She enlists help, sometimes. Friends will hop behind the bar to assist during busy periods, especially when hunters arrive to fill their camouflaged bellies during deer-hunting season, lured by one sign that reads “Hunters Welcome” and another that advertises, cheekily, “Coldest Beer In Town.” She says she has a few barbacks “on deck,” acquaintances who “live in the area.” Around here, I ask, what constitutes “the area”? “Well, if you needed help in a hurry, you sure wouldn’t call somebody a hundred miles away,” she says, chuckling. Double-digit miles away, then. Fifty miles, maybe, like how far her burger patties travel.
Loneliness is more than just a state. It’s an affliction, proven to cause or exacerbate a wide range of physical maladies, from obesity and heart disease to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Long-lasting loneliness can absolutely kill; as a risk factor for mortality, emotional isolation is statistically on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity. You’d expect, then, for Eiler to be a case study in the kind of damage caused by solitude. After all, she’s lived alone for nearly two decades, her time spent among just three buildings: home, the tavern, and Rudy’s Library, a small ramshackle building with 5,000 books that Rudy had collected, which operates on a forgiving honor system.
But if Eiler has anything to teach us about solitude, it’s that there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. Being alone is the physical state of not being around other people; being lonely describes the hollow psychological state of lacking fulfilling social relationships. Self-isolation during the pandemic has, for many people, transformed the former into the latter. But while Eiler may spend long stretches by herself — Mondays, nights, whenever bad weather confines people to their homes — she rarely feels lonely, such is her comfort with her life in Monowi and her single-minded devotion to the tavern. She’s less alone, too, than those of us relying on the internet for social interactions, thanks to the symbiotic relationship between her and her tavern customers, each party benefiting from the other’s neighborly company. The Monowi Tavern isn’t just a place to hang out, it’s the place — a locus of community and friendships that spans state lines and generations. “Very seldom I spend much time in here by myself,” she says. “Even now, there’s always somebody coming or going. [The pandemic] didn’t much affect me. It wasn’t no big lockup or anything like that. It’s stayed real busy and the locals are all very supportive.”
The closest Monowi came to feeling the pandemic’s effects was in April 2020, when Nebraska’s governor added Boyd to the list of counties required to close their bars and restaurants. The county sheriff swung by the tavern to deliver Eiler the news. “When I got there, there were three guys,” he told the Associated Press. “Two were drinking, and one was getting ready to leave. She explained what was going on and said, ‘I’ve got to close up.’ ” Eiler never did fully shutter the tavern. “People couldn’t come in and eat for the month of April,” she says, “so I just cooked, and the meals went out.”
Before the pandemic and even since it began, many of Eiler’s customers have been perfect strangers, travelers who learn about Monowi on the internet. They come from all parts of the world — her guestbook has been signed by people from all 50 states and more than 60 countries — in all seasons, in all weather, to meet her and take pictures of the iconic road sign on the edge of town: MONOWI 1. Two years ago, after a torrential storm flooded the roads and washed out the bridges, a group still drove 150 miles to the tavern. “Some of them come an awful lot of miles,” Eiler says. “But I guess they always find their way.” They keep showing up, as much for themselves as for Eiler. They know their pandemic-traveler’s tale of meeting the lone resident of America’s least-populated town is a good one. And they know their presence at the tavern — sharing their stories of their adventures, their friends, their hometowns — is what sustains and stimulates Eiler.
I ask her if the news stories and social media — where travelers share proud selfies with her and accounts that specialize in fascinating facts repost images of the tavern — have been a boon for business. All the publicity is a good thing, right? “Well, sure,” she says matter-of-factly, then pauses, reassessing. “But I don’t know. I never see any of the stuff that’s published. I don’t pay much attention to it.” She has no cellphone, but people are always calling her on the tavern’s landline rotary. “I’ve got a computer and I’ve got the Wi-Fi, all that stuff,” she says, “but I’m just not interested in reading what I have to say when it’s probably — well, whatever.” Because, I suggest, it’s your own life? “Yeah,” she says, then adds in a surprisingly cheerful tone, “I lead a pretty dull life.”
During the pandemic, the way Eiler passes her days is not noticeably different from how she passed her weeks, months, and years before it. She goes to work, goes home, repeats; the sun rises, the sun sets. In her quiet corner of the world, self-sufficiency and independence are how both she and her customers survive, even thrive. They find pleasure in their work and in the small slices of life shared daily.
Running the tavern, she says, “is my interest. I’m not interested in going and sitting in somebody else’s bar. I’m not interested in going and gossiping at the coffee shop. I can do all of that right here.” Every day, she meets people new and old just by walking the few yards from her home to the tavern. “I don’t mind answering all their questions,” she says of the curious travelers and journalists like myself. “I’m more interested in what stories they can tell me than what I can tell them.” At a quiet tavern backed by cornfields, conversation facilitated by $3 beers, “It’s very easy to get people to talk about themselves.”
Eiler has no plans to give up the life she’s built in Monowi, whether during the pandemic or after it. “I’m doing what I want to do right now,” she says, resolutely. “Maybe next year I won’t want to. But this year, this is what I want to be doing.”
Kieran Dahl is a freelance writer covering travel, culture, design, and technology.
Daniel Johnson is a Midwest editorial photographer living in Omaha, Nebraska, specializing in editorial portraiture, food photography, architecture interiors, and documentary photojournalism.