Today is Fat Tuesday! In most of the country, that just means one more day until Lent begins, but here in my home of New Orleans it’s the culmination of several weeks of parades. Mardi Gras is easily my favorite time of the year, but sometimes it seems like half the country has decided to come visit. The parade routes are sardine-packed with people, the highways are perpetually clogged, and the French Quarter is a complete no-go zone until the tourist hordes head home. Don’t get me wrong, I love that people from all over are enjoying this wonderful city. But once the last parade finishes up, I always want some peace and solitude to unwind from the craziness.
Problem is, solitude can be hard to come by even after Mardi Gras. I’ll be going right back to work and school, getting caught in the same old traffic and living on a main road. At times, I just wish I had a few days to get away from it all. And that got me thinking – where exactly would be the best place to do that? Sure, I could hike deep into the wilderness, but that seems a bit remote – too few toilets, too many bears. So, I set about finding the smallest of the small towns. Not just homey villages, either – places where my mere presence would double the population. So, here’s a list of America’s one-person shows: towns with a population of exactly one.
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Long before Colorado became a haven for beer and skiing, its primary industry was mining. Classic western mining towns still dot the mountainous landscape, but many are shrinking and dying. Since 2000, 43 of these towns have been declared abandoned by the state. The town of Bonanza, in Saguache County (see map), seems to be headed for a similar fate. For now, though, it is Colorado’s smallest population center, with retired firefighter Mark Perkovich as its only resident.
Looking into “downtown” Bonanza. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Bonanza wasn’t always such a tiny town. In fact, it was a bona fide regional center in its heyday. Founded when ore was discovered in the area in 1880, Bonanza became an instant boom town: its population exploded to over 1,000 within three years. No one is really sure of the town’s exact peak population, because back then mining towns’ populations were determined by the number of saloons and dance halls. Bonanza had 36 of the former and 7 of the latter. Of course, as the mines yielded less and less more and more people left for better opportunities. By 2010 the population was 16, despite the evidence that Bonanza had once been much larger. By 2014, only Perkovich remained.
The town actually had to fight against abandonment by the state of Colorado in 2015. According to state law, a town is declared abandoned when there is no municipal activity of any kind for 5 years. Perkovich was not involved in politics of any sort, so Colorado moved to wipe Bonanza (the name, at least) off the map. They must not have expected the outpouring of local support for the near-ghost town. Within months, residents of nearby towns had scraped together enough evidence of recent elections to postpone the abandonment proceedings. For now, Bonanza lives on. Perkovich has stated that he really doesn’t care one way or the other, however – there are already no municipal services!
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Buford, Wyoming (aka PhinDeli Town Buford)
Buford is nestled on a mountain pass right between the cities of Cheyenne and Laramie (see map). Although its population peaked around 2,000 during construction of the railroad, today it’s nothing more than a convenience store and a mobile home. Since 2007, the population of the little town has been exactly one, although that singular person has changed. But that’s not the only unique thing about this tiny highway stop – Buford is a story of capitalism at its strangest. To understand, we need to follow four people.
The first is a long-time resident of the town named Don Sammons. Sammons watched as the population of Buford dwindled. By 1992, he decided to simply buy the town. Since Buford was unincorporated, Sammons simply purchased every building within the town’s limits. He happily managed the gas station for nearly 20 years, but by 2006 his wife had died and his son had moved away, leaving him as the only resident. By 2012, Sammons was ready to move on. He did so in a way that made international headlines – he put the whole town up for auction.
Buford’s famous sign. Photo by Robot Brainz on Flickr (cc)
In 2013, Sammons sold Buford to a Vietnamese entrepreneur named Pham Dinh Nguyen for $900,000. Nguyen bought the town with an ambitious purpose: to put his brand of coffee, PhinDeli, on the map (literally). He immediately tweaked the town’s name to PhinDeli Town Buford and began selling his coffee at the convenience store. Sammons, however, moved out, putting the town’s famous claim of population one in jeopardy. Enter Jason Hirsch and Brandon Hoover. Hirsch serves as the town’s mayor/manager/cashier. However, he lives just south of town. The new lone resident of Buford is Hoover, who assists Hirsch with daily maintenance and operations. Will Nguyen’s gamble to turn Buford into a surreal Vietnamese hotspot pay off? Only time will tell.
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Bonanza and Buford have every right to be proud of their claims to fame. However, while both are still classified as towns, they are both unincorporated. Maintaining a town’s incorporated status requires a whole bunch of red tape. You need a mayor, a treasurer, a clerk, and more staff to help with the day-to-day bureaucracy. You need elections, and taxes, and requests for state funding. With all these hoops to jump through, it seems impossible that any one-person town could possibly stay incorporated. Yet, amazingly, one very dedicated person has managed to do just that.
Monowi has always been a tiny farming town in the northern reaches of Nebraska (see map). However, the population shrank as automated farming became popular, and by 2004 Elsie Eiler was left as the town’s sole occupant. Eiler, who is now 84 years young, took it upon herself to keep her town alive. She runs the tavern, which is the only commercial business remaining in town. She also oversees the local library, which is a shed filled with her late husband Rudy’s books. Elsie has made herself responsible for the town’s upkeep, making sure none of its abandoned buildings get too dilapidated. She still works 12 hours per day, six days per week, to serve hungry locals and curious passersby alike.
Monowi’s tavern. Photo by Overduebook on Flickr (cc)
And that’s just her private-sector job. Eiler also performs every single one of the duties required by every single official in an incorporated town. Every year, she posts election notices then votes for herself. She grants liquor licenses to her own tavern with the state of Nebraska’s oversight. She pays about $500 of taxes each year to herself, which she uses to keep the water running and the town’s three streetlights on. If there’s red tape, Elsie Eiler cuts it. Her devotion to her hometown is truly the stuff of legends. And as long as she’s around, you can expect Monowi to officially remain on the map.