One-Woman Town

UPDATED 08/28/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/28/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

No one in Monowi, Neb., raises a fuss to Mayor Elsie Eiler if snowy streets don't get plowed for days, and there's not a peep of dissent if the town audit is overdue. The placability of Monowi's residents comes for good reason: Eiler, 72, is the only one. "I'm the mayor, the treasurer, the street sweeper," Eiler says from behind the counter of the town's only business establishment—her own restaurant. "I do whatever needs doing."

At times Eiler's lonesome tasks can border on the surreal. She occasionally hosts town meetings, where she is, naturally, the only participant. She is, of course, the town's unanimously selected mayor. Eiler is also the owner and only employee of the Monowi Tavern, where truckers, farmers and others from nearby towns belly up for burgers, fried ham and french fries. "I tell you, you'd be surprised how many steaks she fries and how many regulars she has in there," says her friend LeRoy Purviance, owner of an oil company in Lynch, seven miles to the west. "I know people who have been stopping there for years." Half a block away is Rudy's Library, a one-room shed with homemade shelves that hold some 5,000 books, most of them once belonging to Eiler's late husband, whose name graces the building. Regulars know to just ask for the key if they want something to read and Eiler's slinging hash. "Anybody who wants a book can just go in, pick out a book and sign it out," Eiler says. "You just bring it back whenever you want."

Eiler wasn't always so alone. A smattering of abandoned buildings dots her hometown, including a one-room schoolhouse and wood-framed church, as ghosts of the old Monowi, once a prosperous railroad stop with 150 residents back in the 1930s. "But little by little, folks started dying and moving away," Eiler recalls. A long time ago, she moved away too, to Kansas City for a training program that led to an airline position in Texas. But in 1954, after she married Rudy, a Monowi native she had known since grade school, Eiler moved back. By then, the population had dwindled to 60. For years, Eiler and Rudy were the only residents, until he died of cancer in 2004. "I worry about her, but it's her decision," says Eiler's daughter Rene Lassise, a Tucson resident who grew up in Monowi and attended the one-room schoolhouse. "Monowi is her home." And Eiler seems happy to keep it that way. "There's always lots of people coming and going," she says. "But mostly, it's just me and the locusts and the coyotes."

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