The Smallest Town in Each of the 50 States

dschreiber29/iStock
dschreiber29/iStock

From a central Florida enclave where the mermaids outnumber the residents to the town that changed its name to Joe, Montana, there’s a lot of quirky history in America’s least populated places. We’ve combed the country to find the most interesting tiny town in each state—ranging in population from one to more than 1000. Some entries describe the state’s smallest incorporated town, while others highlight the smallest census-designated place. We picked the one with the wackiest, cutest, or most surprising story.

1. MCMULLEN, ALABAMA // POPULATION: 9

In 2000, McMullen was one of the only all-black towns in America, with a population of 66. But a series of recent natural disasters has pushed residents away, from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to an EF2 tornado that destroyed 13 homes in February 2016. Now only nine people remain in the rural western Alabama town, according to a 2016 population estimate from the Census Bureau.

2. HOBART BAY, ALASKA // POPULATION: 1

Moonrise on Hobart Bay

Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps (ret.) // Wikimedia Commons

David Jorgensen has Hobart Bay all to himself. The 62-year-old has been the sole caretaker for the abandoned logging camp, accessible only via floatplane or boat, for nearly a decade. He used to live in Hobart Bay with scores of neighbors before the logging dried up in the late ‘90s. The population plummeted from 187 in 1990 to just David Jorgensen by 2010. Now Goldbelt, Inc., a former logging company which owns 30,000 acres in and around Hobart Bay, wants to turn the place into a cruise ship destination and clam farm.

3. JEROME, ARIZONA // POPULATION: 455

Jerome holds simultaneous claims as the smallest incorporated municipality in Arizona and the largest ghost town in America. Founded in 1876, the city grew out of a copper mining camp into the fourth largest city in Arizona Territory. Workers poured in to climb down the town’s mine shafts and extract as many as 3 million pounds of copper each month. The vast number of saloons and brothels that cropped up to cater to the miners in their off-work hours led the New York Sun to dub Jerome “the wickedest town in the west” in 1903. Today, Jerome’s small population of artists, shopkeepers, and hospitality workers bring the ghosts of its past to life for visiting tourists.

4. MAGNET COVE, ARKANSAS // POPULATION: 5

Magnet Cove was named for the abundance of magnetite (lodestone) in its soil, which early settlers discovered when they felt their plows and other tools strangely attracted to the ground. It remains a popular site for rockhounding thanks to its unusually rich [PDF] diversity of minerals. Today, the only businesses in Magnet Cove are a gas station and two novaculite quarries. (Novaculite is a mineral used to make whetstones, and Magnet Cove produces some of the purest novaculite in the world.)

5. VERNON, CALIFORNIA // POPULATION: 209

Vernon was founded in 1905 as an “exclusively industrial” city just south of downtown Los Angeles. Until 2015, Vernon housed about 1800 businesses employing roughly 55,000 workers —but was home to only 100 residents. The city kept its population low on purpose. All residences were owned by the city government, which evicted its political rivals and tore down houses to prevent newcomers from moving in. This enabled a ruling family to control the electorate, run the city “like a fiefdom,” and pay one city administrator a salary of $1.65 million one year. In 2015, under threat of dissolution from the state, Vernon agreed to adopt a series of reforms, including the construction of a new privately-owned apartment building that doubled the city’s population.

6. BONANZA, COLORADO // POPULATION: 1

Bonanza got its name in 1880 from silver miners who thought they’d struck it big. Over the next few decades, Bonanza grew into a copper, zinc, and silver mining boomtown, home to thousands of miners, two hotels, seven dance halls, a newspaper, a candy store, and even a baseball team. Today the town is mainly a summer vacation getaway. Although as many as 200 people own property in Bonanza today, only one man lives in town year-round: Mark Perkovich, a retired hotshot firefighter who moved in 22 years ago seeking solitude.

7. UNION, CONNECTICUT // POPULATION: 843

Trees reflected in Bigelow Pond in Union, Connecticut

Jesse Goodier // Wikimedia Commons

Founded on rough terrain with poor soil, Union was the last town settled east of the Connecticut River. James McNall, the town’s first settler, arrived from Ireland in 1727, and Union was officially incorporated in 1734. Legend has it that the town got its name because it was formed from the “union” of leftover plots of land that surrounding towns hadn’t incorporated. Today Union is a quiet residential community that prides itself on its scenic hills, trees, and wildlife.

8. HARTLY, DELAWARE // POPULATION: 71

After 280 years of townhood, Hartly faced an existential crisis in 2014. The town had no functioning government. It hadn’t collected taxes in two years. And it was somewhere between $20,000 and $36,000 in debt—no one knew exactly how much the town owed because Hartly had stopped paying for the P.O. box where it received its bills. To make matters worse, a former treasurer, convicted in 2004 of embezzling $89,000 from Hartly’s coffers, still hadn’t repaid the town for his theft. Then in December, more than 100 people, mostly out-of-towners, assembled at the local fire station to come up with a plan to save Hartly. They formed a new council and got to work reviving the town, inspiring the 2016 documentary A Hope for Hartly.

9. WEEKI WACHEE, FLORIDA // POPULATION: 5

Weeki Wachee is home to a state-estimated five human beings—and roughly 28 mermaids. More than 250,000 visitors drive each year to the small central Florida town, an hour north of Tampa, to see the Weeki Wachee Mermaids perform 30-minute live shows in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. The show began in 1947, when a navy veteran named Newton Perry figured out a way to breathe underwater using an air hose and a compressor. He built an underwater theater into the springs’ limestone and sought out “pretty girls” to train as mermaids. Today, the mermaids swim and dance alongside manatees, otters, turtles, and even alligators, stopping only occasionally to catch a breath through tubes at the bottom of their tank. The mayor of Weeki Wachee, Robyn Anderson, is a former mermaid.

10. TATE CITY, GEORGIA // POPULATION: 16

Tate City, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “isn’t really a city, more an assortment of fancy, second-home homes owned by Atlantans and Floridians and more utilitarian houses for residents working in Clayton or Dillard.” The town sprang up around a ruby mine that once attracted more than 1000 residents, and later switched to logging. (A man named Tate owned the biggest logging camp, hence the name.) After the loggers stripped Tate City of its forests, they moved on and left little behind. The sleepy town didn’t get electricity until the early 1970s.

11. MANELE, HAWAII // POPULATION: 29


Evans / Getty

Manele is the site of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, on Hawaii’s sixth largest island. Through most of the 20th century, Lanai was the site of the Dole pineapple plantation, once the most productive in the world. But today, 97 percent of the island belongs to Larry Ellison, founder of the software firm Oracle and the fifth-richest person in the world. Ellison bought the land, along with a third of Lanai’s housing, the water utility, two resort hotels, the cemetery, and most other businesses in a single real estate deal in 2012. He plans to turn the island into a luxury resort destination for the super-rich, prompting concerns for the future of the island’s residents.

12. WARM RIVER, IDAHO // POPULATION: 3

Warm River became a city thanks to a quirk in Idaho’s 1947 liquor laws that restricted liquor licenses to establishments within municipal borders. That year, Fred Lewies, an Estonian immigrant who owned and operated the Warm River Inn and Rendezvous Dance Hall, incorporated the city so that he could legally serve drinks at his bar. The town has had three mayors: Fred’s wife Berta, their daughter Lillian, and their granddaughter Lonnie. Today, Warm River still has its dance hall, but it’s also a fishing destination and a stop for tourists on their way into Yellowstone National Park.

13. MOONSHINE, ILLINOIS // POPULATION: 1

There’s one business, one house, and one person in Moonshine, and they’re all under one green tin roof. Helen Tuttle owns the Moonshine Store, a country store and restaurant she operates out of a century-old building in the middle of Eastern Illinois farmland. Each day, Tuttle serves 140 Moonburgers to customers visiting from surrounding farms (and sometimes ranging from the far flung corners of 50 states and 45 countries). The burgers aren’t very elaborate. Tuttle serves a gas-grilled beef patty on run-of-the-mill buns. But guests are invited to jazz them up themselves from a condiment table featuring mustard, mayonnaise, onions, hot pickle relish and horseradish. For years, Moonshine had a second resident: Roy Lee, Helen’s husband. But Roy died in 2015, and now Helen lives alone in the six rooms above the Moonshine Store.

14. NEW AMSTERDAM, INDIANA // POPULATION: 27

New Amsterdam was born and nearly destroyed on the banks of the Ohio River. Until 1937, the town thrived on the riverbank. It had two general stores, its churches’ pews were packed, and the houses along the river held upwards of 400 people. Then a 1937 flood wiped out most of the city and drove many of its residents away for good, but the remaining folks didn’t give up. In 2015, New Amsterdam celebrated its bicentennial.

15. BEACONSFIELD, IOWA // POPULATION: 15

US astronaut Peggy Whitson tests her space suit before blasting off to the International Space Station
Kirill Kudryavtsev / Getty

Beaconsfield may be tiny, but it punches above its weight class in terms of bragging rights. The Iowa town was the birthplace of the Hy-Vee grocery store chain, which operates more than 240 stores in the Midwest. The founders Charles Hyde and David Vredenburg (Hy-Vee, get it?) opened their first store in Beaconsfield, right at the onset of the Great Depression in 1930. Beaconsfield is also astronaut Peggy Whitson’s hometown [PDF]. In April 2017, Whitson broke the NASA record for most total days in space (at the time, 534). She’s also the first woman ever to command the International Space Station twice. 

16. FREEPORT, KANSAS // POPULATION: 5

Freeport is a dwindling town that refuses to go softly into the night. For years, the town boasted in its motto that it was “the smallest incorporated city in the United States having a bank.” But the bank left in 2009. Two years later, the post office tried to leave, too, but Freeport residents put up a fight. They petitioned the U.S. Postal Service to review its decision and hung a sign in city hall, housed in the abandoned bank building, urging visitors to “Help Keep Our Post Office—Buy Stamps.” Ultimately, the USPS was no match for Freeport’s residents. The post office remains, along with a grain elevator, a church, and five stubborn Kansans.

17. SOUTH PARK VIEW, KENTUCKY // POPULATION: 7

South Park View is quickly disappearing beneath the air traffic of Bowman Field. Since 1994, the Louisville Regional Airport Authority has been buying up homes and relocating residents under the path—and wall-to-wall noise—of arriving and departing planes. Over two decades, the program bought out more than 2000 homes at a cost of more than $260 million. But seven holdouts in South Park View have refused to accept the voluntary buy-outs.

18. MOUND, LOUISIANA // POPULATION: 18

Mound got its name because its founders built the town on top of a Native American burial mound. A century ago, Mound was a collection of cotton plantations owned by a few landed families. In those days, a planter named George S. Yerger controlled 50,000 acres and paid his workers in a made-up currency they could only spend at his company store. He also acted as town sheriff and kept prisoners in a subterranean jail buried under his store. Today, corn and soybeans grow in the fields, but the same families still live in their ancestral homes and own much of the land. Margaret Yerger, who is married to George Yerger’s grandson, is mayor.

19. HIBBERTS GORE, MAINE // POPULATION: 1

A gore is an unincorporated area, usually created when land surveyors make mistakes that leave irregularly shaped hunks of unaccounted land between town boundaries. In Maine, Hibberts Gore is home to one resident, Karen Keller, who lives 100 yards from the nearby town of Palermo. Curious reporters have been seeking her out for stories since the Boston Globe ran a profile on her in 2001, but Keller doesn’t like the attention. “These people from these big papers come. Why? What have I done? It’s a bunch of lines on a map. Nothing else.” Keller told Sunday Salon in 2013. “What have I accomplished? What have I ever done to make anyone’s life better? What good for the planet? What good for people? What good for anybody? Why? It’s hogwash.”

20. PORT TOBACCO, MARYLAND // POPULATION: 13

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Port Tobacco was Maryland’s second largest port and the seat of Charles County. Historians say it rivaled Williamsburg and Philadelphia among colonial ports, and that George Washington used to pass through town regularly on his way to see his doctor. Today, Port Tobacco still operates under an 1888 charter that bars women from holding office, imposes a $1 tax on every dog and prohibits any resident from allowing “his swine to run at large within said village.” Mayor John Hyde, a mortician by trade, told the Washington Post in 2006 that the town never got around to changing those laws, but it doesn’t enforce them anymore.

21. GOSNOLD, MASSACHUSETTS // POPULATION: 75

An 1858 landscape of Cuttyhunk Island by painter Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt // Wikimedia Commons

Gosnold comprises the Elizabeth Islands off the southern coast of Massachusetts. Most residents live on the island of Cuttyhunk, the town seat. According to news reports, in the summer Cuttyhunk’s population can swell up to 400, but in the winter, the island’s 150 golf carts far outnumber its 20 year-round residents. Cuttyhunk is home to a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher and two students. It is only accessible by a ferry which in the winter runs twice a week across Buzzards Bay, carrying food, fuel, mail, and people.

22. POINTE AUX BARQUES, MICHIGAN // POPULATION: 10

Pointe-Aux-Barques Lighthouse
Cliff Kinney // Wikimedia Commons

Pointe Aux Barques is a resort town on the tip of the thumb of Michigan’s mitten. It got its name in 1665 from French priest Claude Alouez, who thought the rocky coast resembled the prow of a ship. From 300 BCE to 600 CE, the land Pointe aux Barques would occupy was a sacred place for an ancient indigenous culture. After its disappearance, the land went unoccupied for a millennium until European colonists showed up and began logging the forest in the 17th century. In 1896, railroad baron Stanford Crapo built a resort, connecting Pointe aux Barques to wealthy Detroit families who fled to the rural township in the summer.

23. FUNKLEY, MINNESOTA // POPULATION: 10

Green Funkley Road Sign
Ed Kohler // Wikimedia Commons

Funkley mayor Emil Erickson will serve anyone who visits his town a drink—provided that they go to the Funkley Bar and Lounge, which he owns, and pay using Funkley Bucks, a made-up currency with his face on it that he prints and doles out to tourists. Erickson presides over the bar with his dog Chopper, who likes to sit on a stool next to the patrons. In the fall, big crowds of hunters visit. In the summer, Funkley gets bikers. Otherwise, there aren’t many new faces in Funkley. The city’s population recently doubled to its current 10 residents after a five-person family moved in.

24. SATARTIA, MISSISSIPPI // POPULATION: 53

Satartia’s main claim to fame is the Satartia Bridge over the Yazoo River in the Mississippi Delta. Its concrete, steel, and rust aesthetic has landed it on a website that catalogues ugly bridges. But most infamously, a team of paranormal investigators has claimed the Satartia Bridge is haunted: They saw mysterious floating flights, heard phantom moans, and smelled rotting flesh coming from the water in 2003. They suggested the source could be the indigenous Yazoo people, who according to legend were marched into the river to their deaths after refusing to surrender to the conquering French. Another theory claims the river is haunted by the crew of one of the 29 ships sunk here during the Civil War.

25. BAKER, MISSOURI // POPULATION: 3

Baker is tiny— less than a quarter-square-mile of land. But the town’s only family farms 3,300 acres of rice, soybeans, and wheat in fields that extend beyond Baker’s boundaries. Mark Rinehart took the land over from his father, Max, and now works it with his son, Eric. Mark told the Missouri News Scene his proposal for boosting the U.S. rice market in 2014: “Drink more beer, eat more rice, or both.”

26. ISMAY, MONTANA // POPULATION: 21

Ismay wasn’t always named Ismay. Until the 1910s, the town was called Burt. Then a railroad division superintendent renamed the place Ismay, a mashup of his two daughters’ names, Isabella and Maybelle. Then, in 1993, as part of a Kansas City radio station’s publicity stunt, the town agreed to change its name to Joe, Montana, in honor of the NFL quarterback who had just been traded to the Chiefs. Sports Illustrated picked up the story, and soon the town was selling hundreds of “Joe, Montana” t-shirts, coffee mugs, and golf balls. More than 2000 visitors descended on the town the first time it hosted “Joe Day.” And the Kansas City Chiefs flew the entire town down to see a game and hang out with Joe Montana. When Ismay ended the stunt eight years later, the town had enough money to buy itself a new fire truck and build a community center—named for Joe Montana.

27. MONOWI, NEBRASKA // POPULATION: 1

Elsie Eiler is all that’s left of Monowi, the only incorporated town in America with one inhabitant. She is the mayor and the owner of the Monowi Tavern, the only business in town. She lives half a mile away from the bar in a mobile home. Each year, she taxes herself to raise the money to keep Monowi’s four streetlights on. For decades, there was another resident in Monowi: Eiler’s husband Rudy, an avid reader. He died in 2004. The next year, Elsie built a library behind the tavern and stocked it with 5000 books. The library was her husband’s lifelong dream, and Elsie dedicated the building to Rudy.

28. CALIENTE, NEVADA // POPULATION: 1108

The land that would become Caliente was first settled in the early 1860s by Ike and Dow Barton, two escaped slaves from Arkansas. For a while the place was called Culverwell, after Charles and William Culverwell, who owned a ranch on the land. In 1901, when Union Pacific and another railroad got into a territory dispute over who could lay down track in a narrow canyon near the ranch, William Culverwell ended the land battle “with his shotgun.” He gave Union Pacific the right to build a railroad grade through his property and the rival company dropped its claim. The town quickly grew to more than 5000 residents thanks to the train depot. It was renamed Caliente after the discovery of nearby hot springs.

29. DIXVILLE NOTCH, NEW HAMPSHIRE // POPULATION: 8

A man casts his ballot in Dixville Notch's midnight primary election in 2016
Alice Chiche // Getty

The residents of Dixville Notch have cast the first votes in every U.S. presidential election and primary since 1960. Thanks to an obscure New Hampshire law, voting precincts with fewer than 100 voters can open their polls at midnight on election day and close them as soon as everyone has cast their vote. A local hotelier started driving his employees to the polls at midnight in 1960 as a publicity stunt for his resort. The polls closed at 12:07 a.m., and the town became the first precinct to report election results. It wasn’t long before presidential candidates began visiting Dixville Notch every four years.

30. TAVISTOCK, NEW JERSEY // POPULATION: 5

A group of golfers founded Tavistock in 1921 to evade blue laws in nearby Haddonfield that banned sports on Sundays. When 19 former members of the Haddonfield Country Club got fed up with the restrictive rules, they incorporated Tavistock, a quarter-mile splinter of Haddonfield. There they created a new country club with a new golf course, which stays open seven days a week. The Tavistock government also lets its country club sell liquor, which is illegal in Haddonfield.

31. WHITES CITY, NEW MEXICO // POPULATION: 7

Kentucky teacher Charlie White founded this town near the entrance of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the 1920s. White built tourist accommodations on the only road in or out of the park. “White’s Cavern Camp,” a collection of 13 visitor rooms, a gas station, and a house for his family, grew into Whites City. White’s children and grandchildren eventually added a theater, a saloon, and a museum of curios including a stuffed two-headed snake. In 2008, the White family auctioned off the entire city for $1.55 million. (Before the final auction, the family listed it on eBay for $5 million.) The new owners sold Whites City again in April for an undisclosed sum.

32. OIL SPRING RESERVATION, NEW YORK // POPULATION: 1

A Franciscan missionary named Joseph DeLa Roch D’Allion made the first recorded mention of oil in North America here in 1627. The Seneca and earlier indigenous peoples knew about the oil long before, and used the spring’s petroleum-laden waters for medicinal purposes. The U.S. federal government officially recognized Oil Spring as a Seneca reservation at the end of the 18th century, but by the 1850s white squatters, including future New York governor Horatio Seymour, had taken up residence. The Seneca waged a legal battle to evict the squatters and have retained control of the land ever since [PDF].

33. DELLVIEW, NORTH CAROLINA // POPULATION: 13

In 1925, the Dellinger family had a problem: stray dogs kept raiding their chicken coops and killing their poultry, but local laws prevented them from shooting the mongrels on sight. Luckily, they had a cousin in the state assembly. That year, state representative David R. Dellinger proposed a bill to incorporate the town of Dellview, populated almost exclusively by Dellingers. The town never collected taxes, provided a police force, or offered water or sewer services. But it did pass a local ordinance that made it legal to shoot stray dogs. In 1978, no one in Dellview responded to a Census Mapping Survey and the state declared the town inactive.

34. RUSO, NORTH DAKOTA // POPULATION: 4

Ruso was founded in the early 20th century by protestants from Ukraine who wanted to escape the influence of the Russian Orthodox church. Many took homesteads for farming and ranching in North Dakota. By 1910, 71 percent of the state’s population was first- or second-generation immigrants. The new arrivals named Ruso nostalgically, either after a Russian word meaning “south of us” or a combination of the first letters in SOuth RUssia.

35. RENDVILLE, OHIO // POPULATION: 36

Rendville is a former coal mining town with an outsized influence on the history of labor and civil rights in the U.S. Founded in 1879 by William P. Rend, the town quickly gained notoriety as a place where black men could get work as coal miners. Rend hired black and white workers in large numbers, despite violent threats from white miners in neighboring towns. Rendville produced the first black man and woman to serve as mayors in Ohio—Isaiah Tuppins and Sophia Mitchell—along with the country’s first black woman postmaster general, Roberta Preston. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., pastor and cofounder of the National Urban League, and Richard L. Davis, cofounder of the United Mine Workers of America, both worked in Rendville.

36. LOTSEE, OKLAHOMA // POPULATION: 2

George Campbell had been letting Boy Scouts and church groups camp on his ranch for years. But in 1963, the nearby cities of Tulsa and Sand Springs were racing to annex as much surrounding land as possible, and Campbell worried that if either city gobbled up his ranch, he would have to follow local ordinances prohibiting the campers. So he filed to incorporate a new town and named it after his daughter, Lotsee. Today, Lotsee Spradling and her husband Mike are the only two residents in town and their ranch takes up nearly all of its area.

37. GREENHORN, OREGON // POPULATION: 2

With an elevation of 6306 feet, Greenhorn is Oregon’s highest city. Founded during an 1860s gold rush, Greenhorn now serves as a vacation retreat and hunting outpost for a handful of part-time residents. Two people, Joyce Pappel and Ron Bergstrom, account for the town’s entire permanent population. Greenhorn collects no taxes and has no sewers, power lines, or police.

38. CENTRALIA, PENNSYLVANIA // POPULATION: 5

A smoking crack opens in a highway near Centralia, Pennsylvania caused by underground coal fires
Don Emmert // Getty

In 1962, a trash fire in Centralia’s dump spread into an underground coal seam and wouldn’t stop burning for the next two decades. In 1981, a 12-year-old boy was nearly sucked into the subterranean inferno when the ground gave out beneath him. Two years later, Congress set aside $42 million to buy out the town’s 1100 residents, but nine holdouts refused. After another two decades, they won the right to stay in their homes. Those that remain alive are Centralia’s last residents.

39. WATCH HILL, RHODE ISLAND // POPULATION: 154

Watch Hill is a blue-blooded beachside village—home to the Ocean House, a grand hotel built here just after the Civil War—where wealthy families have spent their summers for more than a century and resisted letting newcomers into their enclave. But in 2013, nouveau-riche pop star Taylor Swift plunked down $17.75 million in cash for a 16-room waterfront mansion. For the rest of us, one of two Watch Hill beaches is open to nonresidents.

40. JENKINSVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA // POPULATION: 43

A nuclear reactor in Jenkinsville, South Carolina at sunset

DJSlawSlaw // Wikimedia Commons

Jenkinsville successfully installed sidewalks, curbs, and streetlights through federal grants. But Jenkinsville is also the site of a slightly larger construction project: two nuclear reactors. Joining its existing 30-year-old reactor is a pair of new 1117-megawatt reactors, the first such structures built in the U.S. in three decades. They’re scheduled to start running by 2021, and each will provide enough electricity to power 640,000 homes.

41. HILLSVIEW, SOUTH DAKOTA // POPULATION: 2

It might be hard to find Hillsview, a half-square-mile patch of territory near South Dakota’s northern border. There used to be two signs that pointed toward the town from the highway, but vandals stole one of them, and the county took down the other down, reasoning that they couldn’t direct drivers to a place with no services to speak of. Now Hillsview’s two residents, a mother and son named Helen and Cletus Imberi, use the town’s only revenue—a small transportation allotment—to keep the Hillsview’s eight streetlights on, which illuminate their home, an abandoned school, and a hardware store.

42. SAULSBURY, TENNESSEE // POPULATION: 112

Saulsbury used to be renowned for its valuable sand. In the 1870s, the sand mining industry took off and the town shipped 47 different kinds of sand to nearly every state in the country.

43. LOS YBANEZ, TEXAS // POPULATION: 19

In 1980, Israel Ybanez snapped up an auctioned parcel of government land in western Texas with one goal: open dry Dawson County’s only liquor store. He incorporated the town in 1983, installed his wife as mayor, got his liquor license, and opened a take-out beer store. For three decades, Ybanez did brisk business as the only booze merchant for miles, eventually expanding to also sell wine and spirits. Ybanez died in 2014, but there are three liquor stores in Los Ybanez today.

44. BONANZA, UTAH // POPULATION: 1

Bonanza is a company town, owned by the American Gilsonite Co., at the center of the only commercial gilsonite mining operation in the world. You may not have heard of gilsonite, but this shiny black subspecies of asphalt is the stuff that shades the ink in your printer and seals your car to keep dust from drifting in from the road. Most of the company’s 225 workers live 48 miles away in Vernal, but Bonanza still encompasses 26 houses, processing plants and administrative buildings.

45. NEWFANE VILLAGE, VERMONT // POPULATION: 113

Newfane Village is a small incorporated enclave within the larger town of Newfane—a cluster of old, historic homes and small stores surrounded by forest. The settlement dates back to 1825 and its “village” status is a holdover from an archaic local government structure that Vermont abandoned by the 1930s. With its idiosyncratic government and its 60 white-clapboard, black-shuttered homes, Newfane Village has been described as a “microcosm of Vermont” and the “epitome of small-town New England.”

46. CLINCHPORT, VIRGINIA // POPULATION: 66

Clinchport started as a port for loggers transporting logs down the Clinch River to Chattanooga. The loggers rode the logs downstream, guided them into port at Chattanooga, and then hitched a ride back to Clinchport to chop down another tree. The town grew until 1977, when the Clinch River flooded and washed away many of its homes and businesses. Clinchport was never rebuilt. Today the Clinch River is renowned for its biodiversity. With over 130 species of fish and 40 species of mussels—many of them threatened or endangered—it is the most biodiverse river in the country.

47. KRUPP, WASHINGTON // POPULATION: 49

The town of Krupp was incorporated in 1911 and still officially bears that name—but everybody calls the place Marlin, because of a grudge against the Germans that dates back to World War I. During that conflict, the German Krupp gun factory manufactured much of the artillery the Axis powers fired on Allied soldiers. Queasy about this association, the town started calling itself Marlin, after John Marlin, the town’s first white settler.

48. THURMOND, WEST VIRGINIA // POPULATION: 6

William D. Thurmond, a former captain in the Confederate army, got 73 acres of land along the New River Gorge in 1873 as payment for his work as a surveyor. With rich coal fields and access to a nearby railroad junction, Thurmond’s property quickly attracted miners and merchants from across West Virginia. Saloons and gambling houses quickly followed. The town of Thurmond came to be known as the “Dodge City of the East” and was described as “hell with a river through it.” As the coal industry dried up, so did the town, until only five residents remained by 2015. That year, Thurmond became the smallest town in America to unanimously ban housing and employment discrimination against LGBT people.

49. ODANAH, WISCONSIN // POPULATION: 13

Odanah is the seat of government of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians on the Bad River Reservation. During the 1850 Sandy Lake Tragedy, 400 Chippewa died of disease, starvation, and cold when the federal government tried to force them to relocate west of the Mississippi. In 1854, the government granted the tribe permanent reservations in Wisconsin. Today, the Bad River Band has more than 7000 members, most living on the roughly 125,000 acres of undeveloped land in the reservation.

50. (PHINDELI TOWN) BUFORD, WYOMING // POPULATION: 1

All of Buford belongs to Pham Dinh Nguyen, a Vietnamese businessman who bought the place solely to promote his brand of gourmet coffee. He even unofficially renamed it PhinDeli Town Buford after the coffee. Nguyen, who reportedly walks around his native Ho Chi Minh City wearing a cowboy hat and calling himself “the mayor,” paid $900,000 in an online auction to buy Buford’s five buildings in 2013. He leases the town to a caretaker named Jason Hirsch, who runs a convenience store and gas station called the Buford Trading Post. It is the town’s sole business and the only place in America where you can buy PhinDeli coffee. Hirsch, however, doesn’t live in town. Buford’s one resident is Brandon Hoover, who lives in a modest house behind the gas station. Hoover shares Buford with a horse named Sugar, Buford’s unofficial mascot.

11 Great Gifts for Retro Gaming Fans

No Starch Press/Amazon
No Starch Press/Amazon

Video games are more realistic, expansive, and ambitious than ever, but there’s one thing that most modern titles can’t offer: a hit of nostalgia. If you’re shopping for the retro gaming enthusiast in your life, check out these 11 gift suggestions that promise to level up their holiday season.

1. Pac-Man Ghost Light Table Lamp; $30

The Pac-Man Ghost Light Table Lamp is pictured
Paladone/Amazon

Liven up a stagnant work area or nightstand with this cool LED lamp in the likeness of Pac-Man’s ghost nemesis. It can flash in a variety of different colors, and at a compact 8 inches tall, you can buy more than one to haunt your living space.

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2. Street Fighter II Home Arcade; $245

Street Fighter II Arcade Cabinet.
ARCADE1UP/Amazon

Relive the sweaty palms and raw fingertips of your youth with this Street Fighter II arcade cabinet from Arcade1Up. The entire package is true to its classic arcade roots, with era-appropriate artwork adorning the outside and buttons and joysticks that look like they were transported right out of a '90s Pizza Hut. But this cabinet comes with a bonus: Instead of just getting Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, it also plays Street Fighter ll: The New Challengers and Street Fighter ll Turbo. If you're not in the mood for competitive play, the company also offers a retro Star Wars arcade cabinet, featuring games based on A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

Buy It: Amazon

3. Level One Donkey Kong T-Shirt; $41

A Level One 'Donkey Kong' T-shirt is pictured
80sTees.com

Show off your love of arcade gaming with this cool design that depicts Mario’s earliest challenge: navigating the barrel-tossing rage of a giant ape.

Buy It: 80sTees.com

4. Playstation Coasters; $12

A set of four Playstation coasters is pictured
Paladone/Amazon

Keep beverage stains off your gaming-adjacent furniture with this set of four coasters depicting classic Playstation controller buttons.

Buy It: Amazon

5. SEGA Genesis Mini-Console: $79

Sega Mini Classic System.
Sega/Amazon

Flash back to the Genesis era with this retro console that features over 40 games from SEGA’s heyday, including Sonic the Hedgehog, Earthworm Jim, and Virtua Fighter. The system also features a port of the arcade version of Tetris, which never actually made its way to the original Genesis.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Sock It to Me Retro Gaming Socks; $11

Sock It to Me Retro Gaming Socks are pictured
Sock It To Me/Amazon

Keep it professional in a suit but game on underneath with these dress socks featuring iconic game controllers from Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony.

Buy It: Amazon

7. The Game Console: A Photographic History from Atari to Xbox; $19


No Starch Press/Amazon

Take in a photographic history of gaming consoles, from the vintage devices of the ‘70s like the Magnavox Odyssey on through Nintendo’s reign and the emergence of Sony and Microsoft. In all, 86 consoles are on display, ending with the era of the PS4 and Wii U.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Nintendo Super Mario Bowser Vs. Mario 3-Pack Diorama; $26

A Nintendo Super Mario and Bowser diorama is pictured
World of Nintendo/Amazon

Let other people display fine art. You can show off this diorama depicting the biggest rivalry in retro gaming between Mario and Bowser. You'll also get a Bob-Omb figurine, just in case you want to recreate one of the duo's video game battles.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Playstation Wallet; $25

A Playstation wallet is pictured
SONY PlayStation/Amazon

Keep your cards and cash in one place with this Playstation-shaped wallet. There's even a button-snap opening in the shape of the system's disc tray.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Pong Shirt; $38

A 'Pong' T-shirt is pictured
80sTees.com

Go so retro that Millennials won’t even know what you’re referencing with this nod to the popular game Pong.

Buy It: 80sTees.com

11. The Legend of Zelda Ugly Christmas Sweater; $39

Legend of Zelda Ugly Christmas Sweater
Nintendo/Amazon

It may call itself ugly, but those pixelated images of Link from Legend of Zelda are nothing but gorgeous to retro gamers. There's also a Mario version, if the portly Italian plumber is more your style.

Buy It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

15 Secrets of Sesame Street Puppeteers

Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
HBO

For 50 years and more than 4500 episodes, Sesame Street has been imparting valuable moral, ethical, and social lessons to young audiences using a sprawling cast of puppets. The Sesame characters—Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, the Count, and others—have become instantly recognizable to generations of viewers. But behind every memorable character is a human performer, one tasked with juggling the technical demands of puppet operation without losing the humor and heart that makes their furry counterpart so memorable.

To get a better sense of what goes into this unique skill set, Mental Floss spoke with three veteran Sesame Street performers during the show’s semicentennial celebration. Here’s what they had to say about crossed puppet eyes, grooming habits, and enjoying a long career finessing felt.

1. Sesame Street puppeteers usually get started lending a (right) hand.

Though there’s no definitive set of directions for puppeteers to get to Sesame Street, a number of performers selected to work on the show begin as apprentices with one specific task: operating the right hand of characters alongside the veteran cast members. “A lot of performers will almost only do right hands for a very long time,” Ryan Dillon, the puppeteer behind Elmo, tells Mental Floss. “Some characters, like Cookie Monster, require two performers with two practical hands.”

Dillon started working on Sesame Street in 2005 at the age of 17. He performed as a right hand and as supporting characters for years before scoring the Elmo role in 2013. Throughout that training, he accompanied the main puppeteer, who uses their dominant (usually right) hand to control the mouth and the other to control the left hand. The newcomer will manipulate the right, a duty informally known as right handing. “It’s a great training ground,” Dillon says. “You’re working directly next to a performer with years of experience. You become one character together.”

2. Sesame Street puppeteers have tricks for making their characters emote.

Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird (L-R) appear in a scene from 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird delve into fine art.
HBO

Peter Linz, who portrays Ernie (among other characters) on the series, tells Mental Floss that getting a puppet to exhibit a personality takes some finessing. “You have to show the entire range of human emotion through something that doesn’t have an expression,” he says. Linz, who also teaches classes on puppeteering, says that there are some techniques to get puppets to show off their mood, however. “You can make them look sad by having them look down. You can get them to smile by opening their mouth. If they’re angry, maybe you close their mouth and then shake their arms ever so slightly. There are degrees of subtlety in all of that.”

Linz says the audience does part of that work themselves, projecting their own feelings onto a puppet. The ultimate proof might be in the example of Miss Piggy. While not a Sesame Street cast member, Linz says it’s telling that people often seem to believe the vivacious and flirtatious porcine character bats her eyes. “She can’t,” he says. The puppet doesn’t have that ability.

3. Not all Sesame Street puppets can perform the same tasks.

Sesame Street utilizes three major varieties of character. There’s the full-body puppet, like Big Bird and Snuffleupagus; “bag” puppets with two articulated hands, like Cookie Monster; and hand-and-rod puppets that have arms controlled by thin rods. “Elmo is a hand-and-rod puppet,” Dillon says. “[The difference means] some puppets can do things others can’t. Cookie Monster can pick things up. Elmo can, but it takes longer. You need to stop [filming] and attach something to his hands with tape or a pin.”

4. Sesame Street puppeteers rely on a key design element to connect to their audience.

Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo.
Zack Hyman/HBO

It can be difficult to communicate that a puppet is able to focus a pair of fixed eyes on something, whether it’s another character, an object, or the audience. But Linz says that the Sesame Street crew and the rest of the Muppets were designed by Henson with that in mind. “The eyes are just two black dots against a white background,” he says. “But all the characters are ever so slightly cross-eyed. There’s a triangle between the eyes and nose and a point where it looks like they’re looking right into the camera.” It’s a sensitive illusion. Turning the puppet even slightly, he says, and they will wind up looking at something else.

5. Sesame Street puppeteers can spend their entire day crouched on the floor.

Being a Sesame Street puppeteer requires more than just having performing chops. On set, characters that may be at waist level with their human co-stars are operated by performers crouched below frame, often on wheeled boards called rollies. “The first day or two, your back and everything else is sore,” Dillon says. “It engages your whole body. Your arm is up in the air performing.” Some actors, Dillon says, have developed knee issues as a result of a career bent over. Fortunately, not every scene requires contortions. Some sets are built raised so performers can stand up straight. Other times, they’ll have to situate themselves horizontally. Scenes set on a stoop usually mean the performer is lying down behind the steps.

6. Sesame Street puppeteers have input into character design.

Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita (L-R) pose with fans of 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita pose with fans.
Zack Hyman/HBO

Lurking in the offices of Sesame Workshop is a puppet factory that, according to Dillon, houses a number of "Anything Muppets"—blank designs that may one day be used as the template for a brand-new character. In 1991, performer Carmen Osbahr got an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of conceptualizing a character when she helped originate Rosita (top right), the first regular bilingual Muppet on the series. “They had a meeting and asked what I had in mind,” Osbahr tells Mental Floss. “I was able to tell them I wanted a monster and I wanted live hands because I wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. I wanted her to be active and colorful. I didn’t want a petite, tiny little monster.” Both Osahr and Rosita have been a presence on the show ever since.

7. Sesame Street puppeteers have material for a blooper reel, but you’ll probably never see it.

Puppet manipulation takes concentration and effort. Occasionally, the cast of Sesame Street can find themselves flubbing a take. According to Osbahr, that’s often due to trying to coordinate left and right hands. “The main thing is props,” she says. “Grabbing stuff is easy, but if you want to pour something into a cup or write a letter, that’s hard. You think you’ll have a glass but just miss it.” Performers can also fall off their rollies, sending their counterparts tumbling out of the frame.

8. Each Sesame Street character has a dedicated puppeteer—with a couple of exceptions.

Actress Amanda Seyfried (L) appears on 'Sesame Street' with Abby Cadabby
Actress Amanda Seyfried with Abby Cadabby.
Richard Termine/HBO

When it comes to Sesame Street characters, there is one sacrosanct rule—aside from right handing, no puppet will have more than one puppeteer. “We feel strongly each Muppet has a dedicated performer,” Dillon says. “If there were two or three Elmos, you would see a copy of a copy.” However, illnesses or personal appearances can make that rule difficult to follow every time. If Dillon can’t make a shoot, a performer will step in to operate the puppet, with Dillon going in to provide the voice later.

The cast can also cover for one another if a scene requires two characters who are normally operated by the same actor. Both Bert and Grover, for example, are played by actor Eric Jacobson. If the two share screen time, Dillon might step in to perform one of them, with Jacobson recording his lines later.

9. Sesame Street puppeteers have a specific way of handling their puppets to keep them clean.

Day after day of manipulating puppets can lead to issues with cleanliness. Performer sweat can dampen the foam insides, while body oils and other contaminants can affect their fur coats. To avoid being dirtied, Linz says performers and production members try to pick up the puppets by the scruff of their necks. “We don’t want to put our oily hands on their faces,” Linz says. Puppets are also usually delivered to and from the set by a team of “Muppet wranglers,” and stored in the workshop where they’re built and maintained. To dry out a puppet, they’re sometimes placed on a wooden stand. A hair dryer set on low might also be used to dry a sweaty interior.

10. Sesame Street puppeteers work very, very closely together.

The characters from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
The puppet cast of Sesame Street.
HBO

Owing to the frequent proximity of puppets in frame, Sesame Street puppeteers are usually working near or virtually over other performers. “We try to be very aware and conscious of the people around us,” Dillon says. “Mistakes happen. Elmo has big feet, and Abby Cadabby has big feet, so you’ll often hit the other person with a foot. It doesn’t hurt.”

11. Guest stars will talk directly to Sesame Street characters—not just the puppeteers.

Sesame Street has played host to many guest stars over the decades, from actors to First Lady Michelle Obama. According to Osbahr, their human guests will often address the character even off-camera. “Most everybody who visits us talks to the character like they’re alive,” she says. “The moment we bring a character down [to rest], we have a conversation, but it’s great to have a relationship with a character and a celebrity. They’ll talk to Elmo, Rosita, Cookie Monster, and we’re talking to them right back.”

12. Sesame Street puppeteers can take years to get fully comfortable with a character.

Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster on the set of 'Sesame Street'
Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster.
Zack Hyman/HBO

For many performers, it can take years before they feel like they’re fully inhabiting their character. “You can be so focused on doing something right, you forget to have fun with the character,” Osbahr says. “By the fourth season, that’s when I started letting go, taking risks, having fun. You stop having to think about it.”

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for performers on Sesame Street to spend decades on the show, which means there's plenty of time to adjust. Carol Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, retired in 2018 after 49 years as a cast member. Osbahr says the familial atmosphere encourages longevity. “I’ve been with this group of people for 30 years,” she says. “We’ve shared a lot of incredible memories together.”

13. Sesame Street puppeteers can sometimes mourn a puppet who is declared “toast.”

Made of foam and other delicate materials, Sesame Street puppets have a shelf life. Depending on use, wear, and handling, they might last a few years before needing to be replaced. Linz says two new Ernies have recently been made after one began sloughing off foam inside, a symptom the production calls “toast” because the foam resembles toast crumbs.

Even with replacements, the legacy of characters can still live on. Linz uses an Ernie with the same mouth plate that was used by Jim Henson as far back as 1982.

14. Sesame Street puppeteers have to work backward.

Actor Anthony Mackie appears on 'Sesame Street' with Cookie Monster
Actor Anthony Mackie with Cookie Monster.
Jesse Grant/HBO

The most surprising aspect of working as a Sesame Street puppeteer? According to Linz, it’s the fact that performers often have to essentially work backwards. Because they’re crouched below the camera frame, puppeteers need to watch a monitor placed low to the ground to see what the camera sees. “When you move your arm to the right, the arm on the monitor moves to the left,” he says. “You’re seeing the image the audience sees.”

15. Yes, Sesame Street puppets are technically Muppets.

Sometimes there's confusion over whether the puppets that appear on Sesame Street actually constitute Muppets, or whether that term is reserved for non-Sesame projects like The Muppet Show or other endeavors featuring Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the others. According to Dillon, any Henson-birthed or -inspired puppet is a Muppet. “It’s become a catch-all term for puppets,” he says. “It’s a brand name, like Kleenex. Jim Henson came up with the name. A Muppet is used for characters that he came up with."

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