In September of 2018, Prudential Insurance ran an ad as part of its series entitled, “The Story of US.” The ad series highlighted particular economic struggles experienced by residents of specific small cities and towns in The United States. In the longer version of the September 2018 ad, Elsie Elier of Monowi, Nebraska talked about how much she missed her late husband, Rudy Elier, who died in 2004. She says she still keeps a photo of him prominently displayed in their formerly jointly owned business, Monowi Tavern, as though he could offer her guidance when she made difficult decisions. Like many widows grieving joyful marriages, Elier felt as though she were alone. In Elier’s case though, she truly was. By the time the town’s 2010 census was taken, she had become the sole resident of the town of Monowi.
When Monowi was founded in 1902, roughly thirty-three percent of Americans worked as farmers. Since Monowi was almost exclusively a farming community, the pervasiveness of America’s agrarian culture benefited the town. After reaching its largest population, one hundred fifty residents, in the 1930s, Monowi’s population steadily declined. The increase in automated farming isn’t singularly responsible for that decline, but it’s a primary factor. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s statistics, technological advances in farm equipment caused increased productivity while making farming less labor intensive. Farms could produce more grain, milk, and meat while employing fewer people. Now fewer than two percent of Americans work in agriculture, and Monowi’s population (or, rather, its near lack of one) reflects that socioeconomic shift in America’s workforce. Even Elsie Elier’s son and daughter left their hometown due to its dearth of economic opportunities.
Elier may not have been able to save an entire farming community, but she is literally saving her town. Monowi isn’t the only sparsely populated American town, but it is the only one that remains incorporated. A city or town that is incorporated is entitled to certain community services made possible by the collection of municipal taxes. Services to which incorporation entitles a town’s residents include: running water, electricity, mail delivery. trash disposal, city planning and highway repair, and the awarding of requested licenses. Because an incorporated town has to have a recognized system of government, Elier runs for mayor during every election cycle. She even puts out campaign yard signs, despite her lack of competition. As both the town’s treasurer, and its most reliable tax payer, she pays herself five hundred dollars per year to keep her water running and her electricity turned on. Every year she creates a road plan for Monowi, which she submits to the governor’s office in order to be eligible for state funding for roadwork. She also applies for and grants herself liquor and tobacco licenses foe her own business, Monowi’s Tavern. She says her tavern has regular customers, despite her being the town’s only resident. She keeps it open six days a week, opening at 9:00 AM every day. After her colon cancer was successfully treated in 2011, she decided she deserved Mondays off. If Elier has an admirable dedication to Monowi, she also acknowledges her unique situation with a wry sense of humor. According to a sign posted on her tavern’s wall, she serves, “the coldest beer in town.”
Perhaps Elier protects Monowi so fiercely because her whole life is there. She was born on a farm outside of Monowi in 1934, when the town still had roughly one hundred residents. She met her husband, Rudy Eiler, in the third grade, when the two were attending a one room schoolhouse. When Rudy Eiler graduated from high school, he joined the military. When Eiler graduated from high school, a friend and she went to an airline agent school in Kansas City, Missouri. Afterward, they traveled to Dallas, Texas and Austin, Texas, hoping to find work as stewardesses. At nineteen, they were both two young for the job. Stewardesses were required to be at least twenty-one years old. Of her time living in large cities, Eiler says, “[I] knew [I] wanted to come home.” When she did come home, she married Rudy Eiler. Though the couple briefly lived as farmers, Eiler’s husband, an affable man who was a voracious reader, suggested they open a tavern instead. The opened Monowi Tavern together in 1971. Rudy and Elsie Elier’s mutual love defined Elsie Eiler’s life for nearly fifty years. In the Prudential Insurance commercial, she says, ” A dozen times a day, I glance over [at his photo] with the idea of asking him something.” The town of Monowi contains a symbol of the couple’s love. The town library consists entirely of books from Rudy Eiler’s personal collection. Eiler, the town’s librarian, welcomes visitors to check books out on the honor system.
Though she honors her husband’s memory by faithfully running the business they shared, Eiler, who will turn eighty-six in 2019, says her commitment to staying in Monowi isn’t an homage to either the town’s past or her own. She has many friends nearby, even if they aren’t exactly local. When she hosts canasta nights at her tavern, she often hosts twenty-four people. When her friends leave, she says, she enjoys her own company. However, she also receives visitors who have come just to see the small town that she singlehandedly runs. They buy souvenirs from her tavern, and they sign her guest book. As of 2018, she had already filled two guestbooks, and she had started a third. Sometimes, she says, fans who have seen her in the media send mail simply marked, “Elsie, Monowi.” She keeps Monowi incorporated, because she feels like she would be dishonoring the town if she didn’t. She stays in Monowi, because there is nowhere else she would rather be. She’s Monowi’s most valuable resident, but she has admirers everywhere. “Nobody is keeping me here, ” she says firmly. “I’m here because I want to be here.” Besides,”how could anybody say I’m isolated when I’ve had visitors from forty-seven states and forty-one countries?” she asks.