Friday, 6 May 2011
Monowi had always been a small town. But it contained, within living memory, a school, a church, and a general store. And a tavern, of course--the only business still operating. Elsie Eiler, the proprietor, is also the town's mayor. This gives her the unique privilege of renewing her own liquor licence every year.
You see, in addition to being Monowi's mayor, she's also the town treasurer and tax collector. As well as being the only resident taxpayer. She is, in short, the sole resident of Monowi, and has been ever since her husband died several years ago.
What happened to the thriving town of Monowi to shutter its store, its church, and its school? Why are all its streets overgrown with grass? Why have all of its houses been left to collapse, many of them still containing the possessions of their last inhabitants? And why is the only business still standing a tavern?
We can trace the demise of this town back to the excessive regulations that have gradually made everything in town unprofitable, except getting people drunk. And oh--by the way--state regulations make it so unprofitable to transfer Elsie's liquor licence that she's stuck with running the tavern herself until the day she dies. So when she dies, so dies the town. The irony is that her tavern has no lack of customers; they just, for one reason or another, don't happen to live in Monowi.
Nebraska can be a hard place to make a living--especially for farmers. The Amish who followed Yost Yoder from Juniata County, Pennsylvania out to Gosper County, Nebraska 130 years ago found that out. The dry plains just didn't yield the kind of harvests they were used to, and within 25 years they had all packed up and moved back to Pennsylvania, where even to this day their hard-working and simple-living descendants are known as "Nebraska Amish."
They were the first Amish to leave Nebraska, but they weren't the last.
More farmers moved into Nebraska in the years leading up to World War One. Railroads crisscrossed the state, making it possible for farmers to sell their harvests to consumers thousands of miles away. Those who could hang in there through the lean years would make it all back, and more, when they harvested a bumper crop with the latest machinery. But the War brought many changes to Nebraska, including the first in a series of regulations that drove hard-working farmers and merchants from the rural areas, and from the state as a whole.
It started with the decree from the Nebraska State Council of Defense that banned teaching foreign languages in all schools in the state. This draconian measure, unthinkable today, was intended to inspire patriotism in the populace. A year later, they even banned the use of foreign languages in churches.
The Amish had the unfortunate distinction of not only using German in their church services, but also teaching it in their schools (so that their children would know how to read their German Bibles). Despite the fact that they had come to America for the very reason of escaping service in the Kaiser's armies, they were now labeled--for purely linguistic reasons--as enemy sympathisers. When the government moved in to shut down their parochial schools, the peace-loving Amish had had enough. To a man, they left the state--and have never returned, except to visit the graves of their ancestors. No one noticed it at the time, but the depopulation of rural Nebraska had already begun.
The War was now over; the State Council of Defense disbanded--but the regulations, as they always do, continued to mount. With the Amish gone, tractors began moving in. Mechanization now made it possible for one man to do the work of dozens. Children were no longer indispensable farm hands, but liabilities. The country schools that the Amish had left the state to avoid attending withered and died for lack of students to fill them. And as the schools closed, it was no longer feasible for families to live in the rural areas. Commutes to school stretched out to fifty, sixty, even seventy miles.
Back in Washington, D.C., legislators were reaching deeper and deeper into the pockets of Americans across the country, but spending that money disproportionately in urban districts. At the same time, legislators in Lincoln continued, year after year, to add to the ever-burdening list of regulations that everyone in the state, urban or rural, had to follow. It just wasn't cost-effective anymore to operate small stores and groceries. Selling raw milk became illegal, putting small dairies and the farms that supplied them out of business. Before long there was hardly anything that could be done profitably in the sparsely settled rural areas, except for getting people drunk. The demand for that never went away--not even in the cities, where the growing populations depended more and more on the largesse of the population at large. Driven from downtown by the rising crime rate, business and employed citizens moved to the suburbs.
Such is the foreseeable end of the overregulated populace: abandoned, decaying small towns and city centers, inhabited by hopeless drunks.