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A One-Horse Town Down to Two People

MESSEX, Colo.—One of the few disadvantages of living in Messex, people here say, is the noise made by coal trains rumbling along the nearby railroad tracks.

The train engineers "just don't know how to lay off the horn," says David Ulibarri. "They act like somebody's there. There ain't nobody there."

Nobody except Mr. Ulibarri, 68 years old, and his neighbor, Dixie Newman, 76—the only residents of this hamlet at the intersection of two gravel roads on the high plains of northeastern Colorado. Both may be away visiting relatives in the Denver area on New Year's Eve.

The tenuous survival of Messex shows how long it can take for a town to die. The last big news here came in 1867, when a stagecoach driver was scalped, says Phyllis Kraich, curator of the Washington County Museum in nearby Akron. At its peak, around a century ago, Messex was a market town for German immigrants who settled nearby to grow sugar beets. It had two churches, a school, a train depot, a post office and three stores. But it hasn't had any businesses or local government for decades, and the two residents have to drive about 20 miles for groceries.

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"There are would-be hermits out there in the world," says Randy Cantrell, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Some, he says, are ready to forsake "the ability to buy a fresh avocado every day" for the peace and quiet of rural communities.

The 2010 Census found 13 hamlets with one or two residents, including Lotsee, Okla., Gross, Neb., and Bonanza, Utah. About 119,000 people live in towns with fewer than 100 residents, up from 79,000 a decade earlier. Mr. Cantrell suspects the increase is due largely to towns shrinking below the 100-resident mark as residents die between the two censuses, rather than any influx of people into tiny towns.

In Messex, two deaths over the past couple of years have cut the population in half. Yet the population could surge 50% if one of Mr. Ulibarri's cousins follows through on an off-and-on plan to move back.

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The two residents, whose modest white clapboard homes are separated by a vacant house, a boarded-up Methodist church and dozens of junked cars, are on friendly terms but tend to keep their distance. Sometimes they don't talk for weeks. "We get along OK," says Ms. Newman.

Ms. Newman grew up a few miles from Messex and moved about 100 miles southwest to Denver in her early 20s because she couldn't find work near home. "I never liked it," she says of the city. After working as a microfilm processor in Denver, she retired to a century-old Messex home, formerly occupied by her parents, in 1996, joining a half dozen other residents.

Mr. Ulibarri, a former newspaper printer in Denver, moved here in 2009, also taking over a home once owned by his parents.

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Mr. Ulibarri's house was once the post office. Less than a quarter mile away, a former Catholic church now serves as a barn. The nearest café is about seven miles away in the village of Merino. All of Washington County is thinly settled, with 1.9 people per square mile. That compares with an average of 87 per square mile nationwide.

Ms. Newman spends much of her time gardening and tending to her two dogs and seven cats. She also feeds stray cats wandering among the town's wreckage, which includes a rusted shipping container and several vacant trailers.

Mr. Ulibarri, who has been divorced twice and has four grown children, says Messex is pleasantly quiet aside from the train blasts several times a day. "Nobody bothers you," he says. "We don't get no salesmen out here."

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Still, there is no escape from the rat race. Mr. Ulibarri figures he spends about 70% of his time gathering and cutting wood for the stove that heats his home. He tends to his eight cats, three dogs, five goats and a palomino horse, named Boss. Unlike Ms. Newman, he doesn't have a good well for drinking water. So he fills jugs with tap water on his occasional visits to relatives in Denver. "It's endless," Mr. Ulibarri says of his to-do list.

He shows a visitor more than two dozen cars in various states of disintegration scattered around his seven-acre lot. Pointing to a white Mercury sedan from the 1950s, he says, "that one actually was my ex-girlfriend's." When he moved here two years ago, Mr. Ulibarri hoped to spend most of his time ministering to these cars, making some of them road-worthy and mining the others for parts.

So far, however, "I'm so busy I haven't even had time to work on my cars."

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com