People have come from all over the world to drink coffee with Elsie Eiler in Monowi, Nebraska. Not only does she own and operate the only business in the village —working six days a week as a cook and bartender at the local tavern — the great-grandmother also serves as mayor, village board president, librarian and local historian.
Why does she do it?
As the lone resident in the nation’s smallest incorporated village, she is the only one who can.
Ponca Creek curls through the upper rim of northeastern Nebraska, the same as it did when the Lewis and Clark expedition first traveled through the region in 1804. They had observed the earth lodge village of the Ponca Tribe who had deserted the site during a seasonal hunt for bison.
Nearly a century later, the town of Monowi was established in 1902. By the 1930s, the village population peaked at 123 people. Elsie’s hometown once boasted a railroad line, grain elevators, post-office, elementary and high schools and churches.
However, decades later, the rail line disappeared and the people did too. Those that remained eventually passed on, leaving behind the shell of a once-lively town.
By 2000, the population had dwindled to 2: Elsie and her husband, Rudy. Both born and raised in Monowi, they married in 1955 and together they began operating the tavern in 1971.
A vacant church now stands stoic in a field, the last funeral held in it was that of Elsie’s father in 1960. The remaining wooden buildings adjacent to the tavern stand crooked, shifted through time.
Regardless of circumstance, Rudy had a dream for the town they shared together – expanding his love for books, and his subsequent growing collection of them with others. He and Elsie’s son, Jack, began to build a small library with fitted shelves but Rudy passed from cancer in 2004 before he could see the finish. Shortly afterwards, remaining family members helped her to move over 5,000 books onto the shelves. A plaque reading “Rudy’s Dream Come True” now hangs on the wall inside.
Without her companion, many feared that she would become lonely, but Elsie couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. “This is where I want to be,” she smiles. Though the village sign now says “1,” she is certainly not alone. Regular patrons include a mix of local farmers and families, card-players and curious travelers. She receives the most visitors during the annual “holiday” known as deer hunting season, when she enlists the help of her family to keep up with the influx of hungry hunters. Otherwise, she runs the tavern – and entire town – on her own.
When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, the tavern doors remained open, only closing the grill while she underwent chemotherapy treatment.
After making a full recovery, she once again can be found cooking in the kitchen, or sipping coffee and reading local newspapers when business is slow, everyday but Monday.
She admits to closing the bar just recently: “I put up signs, ‘going to meet my great-grandson’.” She proudly shares photos of her family, most of which live just down the road, in the towns of Niobrara and Ponca, both names also derived from the tribe.
Upon my last visit to Monowi, I walked into the tavern for a cup of coffee and a chance to chat with Elsie. A line of beautiful flower bouquets from family and friends – including one from the Nite Owls Motorcycle Club – filled the corner of the bar. The entire tavern would soon be brimming with people from all over the land, in celebration of Elsie’s 80th birthday.
As the partygoers dwindled, she sat at the round table once again and shared stories of Monowi Tavern – the grand central station of north-central Boyd County.
She has been featured on NBC News, BBC, CBS Sunday Morning, People Magazine, London Times and countless other publications and news stories. In 2010, Nebraskan comedian Larry “The Cable Guy” Whitney hosted a hotdog roast as a fundraiser to benefit the town. Over a thousand people came and raised enough money to repair the main street and roof of Rudy’s library.
When I remind Elsie that she is a true celebrity, she laughs. “Not really. I’m still here, just flipping burgers and serving beer.”
And luckily for everyone, she is.
This story first appeared in the March 2014 issue of NEBRASKAland Magazine. Read more stories by Amy Kucera at the NEBRASKAland Magazine Author Archives.