Towns across U.S., population 1, demand an accurate census count

Thursday, March 4, 2010 | 8:31 a.m. CST; updated 7:20 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 25, 2010

MONOWI, Neb. — The founding fathers must have chuckled at the impossibility of the job when they etched it into the Constitution: Count every man, woman and child along every back road and big-city avenue in the entire country.

From Key West to Nome, today's Americans will largely get the founders' joke yet again as the U.S. census embarks on its once-a-decade count this year — they're accustomed to approximations of how many people plod their shared corner of the world.

Why does it really matter, after all, that a Nebraska town comprised of a tavern, a few crumbling houses, four street lamps, and one drivable, dirt street be counted exactly right?

Or even at all?

"Because I live in it," said Elsie Eiler, who is Monowi's entire population. Yet census estimates from this summer show there are two Monowians.

"Where's this other person?" Eiler said. "Let me know. ... I don't want to come back to my house at 11 or 12 and see someone else there."

Others across the country who live in the tiniest of tiny towns, from Indiana river country to the wind-swept Wyoming plains, feel the same way as Eiler about census counts and estimates. Proudly holding onto their identities, with the line between existence and disappearance of their villages so narrow, they insist every person counts.

So they want them counted right.

The census estimates that there are four incorporated towns with just one person. But when contacted by The Associated Press, residents in three of those places say they aren't the lonely souls the census says they are. The population of the fourth — Hoot Owl, Okla. — could not be verified by the AP.

"Who's that one?" said Thomas Saucier of Goss, Miss., one of the supposed one-person towns. "There's 50 right here in Goss!"

Told that some estimates of the country's most microscopic towns haven't gone over too smoothly, an official of the federal count got a bit chapped herself.

"We're doing the whole country," said Barbara van der Vate of the Census Bureau. "If we could do one state a month, it'd be much easier to count everybody."

A resident of one of the supposedly one-person towns — New Amsterdam, Ind., listed that way in the 2000 census and in last summer's bureau estimate — concedes that people there may have something to do with the statistical problems. Mary Faye Shaffer cut the census little slack, and said the town is bent on getting an accurate count this time around.

In the general store that she owns — the only business in town, unless you count "a bait shop that's there if they want to be there" — Shaffer tallies residents of New Amsterdam until she reaches 19.

She proudly mentions the couple who moved to town after retiring from Wal-Mart, and she brags about the beauty of the area, mentioning how she can see the scenic Ohio River from her backdoor.

But bring up the census, and her melodic Southern accent hits some sharp notes.

"It's embarrassing — 'You live in a town with one person?'" Shaffer said people say to her.

"People call here just because they think there's only one person. You wouldn't think the government would screw up this bad."

Shaffer surmises the count went wrong in 2000 because the town doesn't have a post office. That means residents have listed nearby towns that have post offices as their addresses.

Townsfolk met with a census official last year and spread the word for everyone to write on their census forms that they live in New Amsterdam, regardless of different mailing addresses.

Will this year's counts straighten out such things? They aren't holding their breath in Lost Springs, Wyo.

Last year, a man with the census came to the town, which is located in eastern Wyoming.

"He seemed very confused," said Leda Price, who runs a bar, hunting camp and catering business, "among other things," in Lost Springs. The only other business is a general store across the street that also has a post office. A big annual event in town is a pitch tournament, which recently drew a couple dozen people.

Population estimates from last summer repeated the finding of the the 2000 Census: Pop. 1, as it says on the road sign entering town.

But Price said she's lived there 37 years and there's always been more than one person. The town actually had five people when the 2000 Census was done, she said, though there are population ups and downs.

In fact, the tally recently spiked 33 percent: A woman moved in with a man who has lived in Lost Springs for some time, increasing the population to four from three.

People ask Price why she doesn't scratch out the road sign and put in the correct number. It's become a sign of her frustrating dealings with the census.

"I tried for a long time to straighten it out and it was like talking to a brick wall," Price said of her discussions with the Census Bureau in recent years.

There's not always someone around to fight an inaccurate count.

Take Erving's Location, N.H., said to have one resident in both the 2000 census and the estimate last summer.

"There's never been anyone there," said Sue Collins, county administrator for Coos County, N.H., who has lived in the area that includes the alleged town for 25 years.

Van der Vate said the bureau will try its best this year to rid the count of population ghosts that spook residents of the tiniest towns. But she acknowledges, as any reasonable person must, that there will be mistakes.

"And the minor mistakes," she said, "can look huge to people in a tiny place."

Back in Monowi, tucked in the rolling hills that abut the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska, Eiler sits in the Monowi Tavern where she sells beer for $2 a bottle and makes $2.50 hamburgers on a 35-year-old, four-burner stove.

She describes a previous battle with the census to be counted right: After the 1990 census, she wrote to the now-deceased broadcaster Paul Harvey, enlisting his help. He mentioned the miscount on his popular radio show.

But nothing changed.

Eiler became the town's only resident when her husband, Rudy, died six years ago. She lives in a mobile home next to a library constructed in memory of her husband, and makes the short walk past a long-closed grocery store every day on her way to the bar. She stays until at least 10 p.m.

Besides bartending and cooking for regulars who are as unvarnished as the splintered, plywood floors in the bar, Eiler works on town business, like the annual budget — about $500 a year, mostly the electric bill.

It's done at "city hall." That's an old desk at the end of the 30-foot bar, near a table where Bill Spelts has taken his usual spot.

There's plenty of beer seven miles down the road in Lynch, where Spelts lives. He comes to the Monowi bar, he said with a crooked grin and laughs from his cronies, "because the beer is 25 cents cheaper."

But the real reason he and the others show up day after day, year after year, is resting her head on her hand as she watches the bull fly.

"Because of Elsie," Spelts said seriously without looking at the woman to his left, Monowi's unique resident.

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