Despite the odds, women strive to keep towns alive

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December 21, 2011 - 6:00pm

Of the 36 incorporated towns in the U.S. with fewer than 10 people, three are in Nebraska - and they're all located in Boyd County.

Elsie Eiler moved to a farm just outside Monowi in northeastern Nebraska when she was a year-and-a-half. 76 years later, after moving away and coming back, she's the only remaining resident.
 


Photos by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

For pictures of Monowi and Gross, check out the flickr slideshow.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Mary Finnegan collects a dollar for every cuss word uttered in her restaurant.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

The town of Monowi, Neb. is one of the smallest incorporated towns in the United States.


"When we moved down here, I think we made, I don't know if it was 11 or 12. And then, the most in the 40 years we've been here, it did go up to 22," Eiler said.

She recounts the history of the town from the tavern she runs, the walls covered in mementos, taxidermied animals lining the shelves. It takes her less than a minute to list the fate of every person who lived here while she did - including her deceased husband, Rudy.

"He died, it'd be eight years now in January, and I just opted to stay here."

Eiler's received a lot of media attention in the last few years: An aging woman, widowed, living alone on the prairie. It makes for a good story.

But Eiler still has neighbors, and people travel to the area from across the state for hunting and outdoor activities, always stopping in for a chat and a meal. She's had visitors from as close as the next county over to as far away as Singapore.

Gail Heiser farms just outside Monowi. He says he's known Eiler a long time; a burger at the restaurant is even named after his brother. He points to a black-and-white photograph framed behind the bar:

"Elsie of course is the girl; I'm the one in the wagon, and the other is my older brother."

The photograph was taken in 1939.

Heiser says he visits the Monowi Tavern almost every day. "I live less than a mile from where I was born, and a half a mile from the cemetery. So I guess I live in a small world."

His rationale for sticking around is simple, and mirrors Eiler's: he just never had a reason to leave.

Mary Finnegan and her husband Mike feel the same way about the town of Gross, population two, located just down Highway 12 from Monowi and a short skip to the north. They also run a restaurant and bar - the Nebrask Inn. In fact, it's the very same one that Eiler's sisters owned before they died.

"It was funny when my youngest son was born," she said. "There was just a funny joke on one of the local radio stations here how we had increased the population of the town by 40 percent."

Finnegan was raised six miles away from Gross; she had her first legal drink at the bar she now owns, which is known for its fried chicken, homemade pie and "Indian tacos."

She and her husband are the only two who remain in Gross, but they, like Eiler, don't want to see the town die. They go through the motions to keep their village incorporated and officially on the map, including electing themselves to city government, caring for the city cemetery or park, repairing streets and streetlights.

"This last year it was just a nightmare getting my permit, because the people down at the liquor commission said, Well, we found that rather odd that you are approving your own liquor license, your own permit.' And I said, Well, I don't know who else you want me to have approve it, since we're the only two that live in town,'" Finnegan said. "People from the city, it's hard for them to imagine just a population of two trying to operate the same as a big city would operate."

Like the Monowi Tavern, the Nebrask Inn serves as the heartbeat of the surrounding area. It's literally a place to weather the storm: Finnegan said when the electricity goes out, everyone travels to the caf to play cards by lantern-light.

This sense of family is a big reason why the Finnegans have chosen to stick it out. They recognize that without them, people have nowhere to go.

"If I close this, I basically close the town," Finnegan said. "Would we stay incorporated? We have to do the same paperwork, the same budgets, the same everything that the city of Omaha does. We just have a lot more zeros."

Actually, there's increased paperwork and auditing the bigger your city is, but Finnegan's point is clear: It takes work to stay on the books.

Eiler, Heiser and Finnegan agreed that lack of jobs is the main reason for their evaporating populations.

"You know, a lot of families, the farms are being sold, maybe there's no children to take over the farm, and so then they're selling," Finnegan said. "And I suppose the economy, I would have to guess. You don't make a huge living here, but you can make a comfortable living in this area. It's just whether they want to stay or not, or whether the modern technology and everything draws the kids to the city, I don't know."

Eiler mentioned the lack of businesses and resources.

"You know, they close all our little grocery stores, they closed all our rural schools it's tough trying to make a living."

And while farmer Heiser says he's had no reason to leave, the opposite is true for most young people: without job opportunities, they have no reason to stay. And that worries Finnegan.

"Halloween, you used to get trick-or-treaters and everything, now we don't," she said. "My husband used to drive the school bus ... and we had a lot of kids just living within a two-mile radius. And now, I can honestly say, there are no young kids within a two-mile radius. None. I mean, where's the future in this country if we don't have little kids anymore?"

Despite their efforts, the future is uncertain; both establishments have been grandfathered through many health code changes, and any new owners would face extensive - and expensive - remodeling.

"So I don't know. It's like I sometimes have said, when I'm gone, I can't really worry about it," Eiler said. "But as long as I'm alive and can keep a-goin', I intend to stick around."

Despite the difficulties, Finnegan said she and her husband have no regrets.

"We're very glad that we came back. We've never been sorry that we did that," she said. "You get tired sometimes, just plain tired, and you think, It'd be nice to have a normal life, have a nine-to-five job and just be able to come home.' But I raised three kids in here, and as I said, I have six grandkids that are in here all the time.

"For years and years and years our motto for Gross has always been, 'Not too good for anybody, but good enough for everybody.' We kind of just maintain that."

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