The party had already started by the time I arrived in Monowi, Nebraska’s one-woman town, last summer.
I eased into the crowded parking lot of the Monowi Tavern after a solitary, 200-mile drive from the Omaha airport. Nearby, a streetlight cast a warm glow over the remnants of the town’s abandoned general store, which had recently collapsed. Not much had changed since my first visit to Monowi nearly two decades earlier.
Inside the tavern, residents from neighboring farms and towns — the closest is seven miles away — joined visitors from across the country to celebrate the bar’s 50th anniversary. Most had known each other for as long as they could remember. They toasted Elsie Eiler, the sole resident of Monowi, who had run the bar since 1971. The town is an anomaly: Elsie is the mayor and tax collector, in addition to being the cook and bartender at the tavern. Monowi continues to exist only because Elsie files the required county and state paperwork every year.
About one in three of America’s rural counties is experiencing sustained population loss, according to a study from the University of New Hampshire. By keeping the bar open in Monowi, a town that has lost its residents, Elsie provides a gathering place for a rural community hollowed out by population loss.
I met Elsie in 2005 as a student photographer studying journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I had read about the unusual town in The Omaha World-Herald and was intrigued by what I imagined was a quiet but resilient existence of this lone woman, then 71. I wanted to know what her life was like and why she stayed in Monowi after so many had left or died.
As it turns out, her life is not quiet. Every day except Monday, which Elsie takes off, people visit from neighboring towns and farms. At the tavern, beers cost $2. The food is tasty and cheap. Most afternoons, you can find neighbors at the locals’ table and a group of teenagers drinking sodas near the front door. Elsie takes time to engage with visitors, to ask about people’s children and grandchildren. In our hyperconnected digital age, this woman — who until recently didn’t have access to the internet — is one of the most connected people I’ve ever met.
Though Elsie doesn’t love to be photographed, she immediately accepted me and the fact that I wanted to document her life in photos. When I first visited, she introduced me to one of her regulars, a retired farmer who gave me a tour of the town and the surrounding county. The photos I took that day became the start of a photo essay.
Before long, like so many before me, I left Nebraska for other opportunities. Still, I never forgot about Elsie. I have returned to Monowi nearly a dozen times over the last 17 years to photograph her. Sometimes weeks or months passed between visits. Other times, years did. Because there are no hotels in the town, I’d usually stay with Elsie, but if she had family in town, I’d stay half an hour east at a hunting lodge.
Elsie and I have shared many evenings together after she closes the bar at 9 p.m. I am always there as a journalist, but we have become friends, too. After I leave, we stay in touch through phone calls, sharing updates — like about my wedding or the births of her great-grandchildren.
Early on, I didn’t have a publication in mind for the essay, but I never felt like the story was finished, so I kept going back to Monowi. Then, a few years ago, I mentioned Elsie to Crista Chapman, a photo editor on The Times’s Business desk. We dug into my archive of images and discussed details, story structure and emerging themes. Through this collaboration, Monowi and its fading way of life became a complete piece.
Elsie’s story isn’t about isolation. It’s about a woman’s commitment to caring for her community and the history of her town. I hope her story helps readers understand what is lost when a lack of economic opportunity leads people to leave rural America.
Elsie used to say, “Like Monowi, I’m too tough to die,” but her recent health issues have made locals wonder how much longer the town will be around. Now 88, Elsie has mentioned retirement, but never with any real conviction. She wonders what she’d do to stay busy and whom she’d talk to if the tavern were to close. “This is my home,” she told me during my last visit. “All my friends are around. Why would I want to leave?”
Even though the piece is published, I still plan to visit Elsie. Returning to Monowi will always feel like coming home.