The Last Woman In Monowi

Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
Elsie Eiler, 82, is lonely — really lonely. Eiler is the sole resident of Monowi, NE, a town on the state's northeastern border, near South Dakota.

Alyssa Schukar, a photographer with The Omaha World Herald, heard about Eiler and was curious. "Often people hear about her and they think, This must be such a lonely existence, how could anyone stand doing that? I was curious about it and I wanted to know what her experience was like." Schukar photographed Eiler and the town that she literally calls her own for the photo essay Population Elsie.
Eiler has been the only resident in Monowi since her husband passed away in 2004. Now, she runs the local bar, Monowi Tavern, and spends time with friends and family who visit from neighboring towns. "[Eiler] lives in a part of the country that does not have a huge population base," Schukar tells Refinery29 by phone. As farms become more automated, the jobs are disappearing. Monowi has dwindled from a population of about 300 residents to just Elsie.

But despite what some might see as a lonesome lifestyle, Eiler has an active social life with caring peers. "You realize that it’s actually an incredible community that they have there," Schukar said. "I would say that Elsie is better connected to people than my neighbors here in Chicago. She has more genuine conversations; they make more of a point to sit down with each other and talk about how their lives are."

Schukar says that Eiler has considered moving away. "Her son is closer to Omaha, and her daughter is out in Tucson. And she's talked about retiring to Tucson, to the warmer climate, and also to be closer to family." But she's too tough to give up on being the last woman in Monowi. "I think she feels in some ways that if she left, that would be the end for her, because this gives her so much meaning, being the center of this community."

"I think Monowi is who she is," Schukar adds.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
The population sign doesn’t lie. Elsie Eiler, at center right, is the sole resident of Monowi, Nebraska's smallest town, but she doesn't spend many days alone. Friends gather from surrounding towns and counties for beers, burgers, and conversation.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
A perk of being the the sole resident of a town in central Nebraska: a letter addressed only to “ELSIE MONOWI” arrives.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
Just south of the South Dakota border, a solitary vehicle passes through Monowi on its main road. The Great Plains are often referred to as “flyover country” because there isn’t much to draw a visitor out there. Prairies, grassland, the Sandhills, and ranches stretch toward the horizon. You’ll find only about 20 people per square mile and, on certain roads, you can drive for a hundred miles without seeing another soul.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
A young Elsie Eiler poses with schoolmates outside of Monowi's one-room school house. Eiler and her husband, Rudy, grew up together and married young. Though they lived away from Monowi while he served during World War II, they returned to raise their son and daughter. Eventually, they bought the town bar and ran it together until Rudy's death.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
After a bout with colon cancer in 2011, Elsie Eiler decided to take Mondays off. In her home, she catches up on soap operas, calls her daughter in Tucson, and runs errands in Lynch, a nearby town.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
Elsie Eiler, 82, walks about 90 feet to the Monowi Tavern, at right, every morning. About a dozen original buildings, like the former shop at left, still stand but have fallen into disrepair.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
At its peak, Monowi's population rose to about 300 people. "Monowi may not be the town it once was, but its neighbors keep it alive," Eiler said.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
Elsie Eiler will be buried alongside her husband at the Alford Cemetery, just a handful of miles from where she was born.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
Old films play as the dinner crowd gathers at the Monowi Tavern where one can buy a cheeseburger for $3.75, french fries for $2 and a ribeye steak for $14.75.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
The once-booming railroad town now reflects the century of American life it once contained: an empty beer case was discarded in the tall grasses along main street.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
In her home near the tavern, Rudy and Elsie Eiler's wedding day photograph, at center, is surrounded by portraits of their parents and grandparents who first settled in the Great Plains of Nebraska.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
Neighbors pass in and out of the tavern's side door all morning long. Some come for coffee or food, others to check in on Elsie Eiler, whom they've known all their lives.
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Photo and caption: Alyssa Schukar
The population sign, which stands alone at the edge of town, reflects only part of Elsie's reality. As the sole resident of Monowi, Eiler has been the mayor, the bartender, the tax collector and the settler of disputes at the town's tavern.
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