- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 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, Fla., to Nome, Alaska, today’s Americans will largely get the joke yet again as the U.S. Census Bureau embarks on its once-a-decade count this year — they’re accustomed to approximations of how many people occupy their corner of the world.

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

“Because I live in it,” said Elsie Eiler, who is Monowi’s entire population after her husband died six years ago. Yet census estimates say there are two Monowians.

“Where’s this other person?” Mrs. 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 feel the same way as Mrs. Eiler about census counts and estimates. They insist every person counts, and they want them counted right.

The census estimates 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 annnoyed herself.

“We’re doing the whole country,” said Barbara Vandervate of the U.S. Census Bureau. “If we could do one state a month, it’d be much easier to count everybody.”

And, “If people don’t answer the questions, guess what? They don’t get counted,” she said.

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 snafu. Mary Faye Shaffer said the town is bent on getting an accurate count this time around.

In the general store that she owns, Miss 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 back door.

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?’” Miss Shaffer says people say to her.

“You wouldn’t think the government would screw up this bad.”

Miss Shaffer surmises that 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.

“He seemed very confused,” said Leda Price, who runs a bar, hunting camp and catering business in Lost Springs. The only other business is a general store across the street that also has a post office.

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

But Miss Price says she’s lived there 37 years and there’s always been more than one person. The town 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.

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.

Miss Vandervate 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 that there will be mistakes. “And the minor mistakes,” she said, “can look huge to people in a tiny place.”

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