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Plato: Town at the center of America

By John D. Sutter, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Census Bureau names Plato, Missouri, as the population center of the United States
  • The 109-person town holds a massive celebration to mark the distinction
  • The same number of Americans live east of Plato as west; same for north and south
  • The village is an emotional center for the country, too

Plato, Missouri (CNN) -- If you stand at the intersection of two wooded cattle trails on Bob Hartzog's land, beneath a particular cedar tree with a handkerchief and three pieces of orange plastic tied to it, you'll find the unexpected "population center" of the United States of America, marked with a pile of stones.

This distinction remains somewhat of a mystery for Hartzog and other people who call this "middle-of-nowhere" patch of Missouri home. But the U.S. Census Bureau thinks it's a big deal. That's why the bureau's director, Robert Groves, came to Plato, Missouri, population 109, to explain the concept and to honor the town with probably the biggest celebration it's ever seen.

Perched at a plywood podium on top of a hay trailer on a recent afternoon, Groves told the people of Plato that their teeny-tiny village is the center point of the entire country in terms of its population distribution.

Understanding this takes a bit of mental gymnastics.

But Groves had a rapt audience.

It looked as though every single Plato resident was there. They sat in metal folding chairs on the gravel driveway of the town school, many with American flags stuck in the sides of their sunglasses or in the front pockets of their pearl-snap shirts and overalls. They held signs that said things like "The Heart of the USA." Local kids made Plato T-shirts and magnets for the occasion.

Imagine the country as a piece of cardboard, Groves told them. If every person in the United States weighed the same, you could put a finger beneath Plato and the entire cardboard nation would balance perfectly. If you stood here and looked to the north, you'd see about the same number of people as if you looked south (assuming you could see incredibly far). Same goes for east and west.

Groves later admitted Plato's recently awarded distinction can seem a bit arbitrary -- and that it always takes some explaining.

The population center of the United States has been migrating to the west and south over the decades.
The population center of the United States has been migrating to the west and south over the decades.

But for Plato, this center-of-the-country thing was an enormous honor -- the town's first and maybe only chance to stand in the national spotlight, which its residents would never seek out.

This was also an opportunity for Plato, which is named for the Greek philosopher, to show the rest of the United States something that's been lost on our path to suburbanization -- the rural roots that grew this country and continue to sustain its core.

"We're out here in the middle of what you might call nowhere," Leon Slape, the village school's superintendent, said with a chuckle. "Now we're the center of nowhere -- or the center of everywhere, as you might say."

'Values we aspire to'

Statistically, Plato is an anomaly in modern America.

It's a quaint and rural place in a nation that, according to the 2010 Census, is becoming less so, as more people move to urban areas, especially the suburbs and exurbs.

Forget big-city lights and traffic jams. Here, you can drive through town in 1 minute and 9 seconds, going the speed limit of 40 mph.

"We're out here in the middle of what you might call nowhere."
--Leon Slape, Plato schools superintendent

On that drive, you'll pass two churches -- one Baptist, one "Christian" -- several fields of horses, a post office, a school and five businesses: Legacy Bank; Weber's Café Pizza & Store; Sho-Me Pest, LLC, a pest-control company; a welding shop; and some strange amalgamation of services labeled "Just-In-Case," which includes a tanning salon, fitness center and hair stylist. The sign says: "It's All About You!"

The people in Plato don't look like a cross-section of the rest of the country, either. The village is mostly white in an era of diversity.

Of Plato's 109 residents, only two are black, two are American Indian, and one is what the Census classifies as "some other race." The rest are Caucasian.

Hispanic and Asian populations are booming elsewhere in the country.

Opinion: In my family photo, America's diverse future

Plato feels different from other places, too. No one here is in a hurry. It's a place where people still use "visit" as a verb that refers to the act of chatting with neighbors for hours on end with absolutely nothing pressing to discuss. People here get "tickled" by things like fishing, baseball games, turkey hunts, town gossip and wading in the local streams.

Locals are fond of saying "we're 30 miles from everything," and they mean that literally. The nearest grocery store or movie theater is an hour's drive away. The local roads are mostly gravel or dirt, and cloudy tails of dust and smoke follow the vehicles.

Gallery: Welcome to Plato

They like this isolated, manageable life. The air in Plato smells sweet and feels more warm-blanket than sticky; the views are bucolic, with tree-lined hills dipping into "big bottoms," as locals call the fertile lowlands that line the area's creeks and rivers.

Plato very well may be stuck in a Norman Rockwell painting that the rest of us decided to toss in the garage decades ago.

But this tiny community is more central to 2011 America than it might seem.

America sometimes wishes it were a little more like Plato.

"There is a spirit of this village and it doesn't take long to pick up," Groves said as he addressed the crowd of about 300 on a blazing-hot afternoon. "I can't think of a better center of the population than Plato, Missouri, and that is because you exhibit all the values we aspire to -- so congratulations!"

'A different country'

In 1790, when the Census Bureau first started tracking this sort of thing, the "center" of the U.S. population was in Kent County, Maryland.

For those of you who slept through geography class, that's way off to the east of Plato -- by more than 1,000 miles.

"You exhibit all the values we aspire to.
--Robert Groves, Census Bureau director

There were only 13 states at the time, all on the Atlantic, so it makes sense that the center of the country would be so firmly set on the Eastern Seaboard.

As the decades passed, this center point moved gradually west and south. At first, this was because the new nation kept adding states in those directions. Lately, the trend continues as people move southwest, generally for blue-sky weather and for jobs that are leaving the Rust Belt and Northeast.

In 1870, not long after Plato got its name, the center of the United States was in Highland County, Ohio. In subsequent decades, the U.S. population center has trekked through Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. It's now crossing Missouri.

This mobile dot tells the story of American history -- from colonization to Westward expansion and on to the current trend of southwestern suburbanization.

"We're a different country and society because of it," Groves said.

'Like the philosopher'

Ask people in Plato about their town and they'll quickly bring up the origins of the name. "It's Plato, like the philosopher," they'll say, beaming.

Ask them what they think about this Plato guy and his theories on life and such, and you'll get mostly laughs or why-would-you-ask-that? looks.

While they may not recite Platonic dialogues, the people of Plato are more than willing to share philosophies of their own. The town credo seems to go something like this: Be nice to everyone; try to know everybody (which is completely possible here, even on a two-day visit); take care of each other in times of need; and always have a good laugh.

Wrap all that into a person and you've got Betty Kimrey.

The 77-year-old, who, like many here, has lived in Plato all her life, never married because her mom had a stroke the day after she graduated from high school.

Without questioning it for a second, and with no regrets to date, she stayed home to care for her mom.

Now Kimrey has neck problems that give her the hunched posture of a street lamp -- her eyes permanently fixed on the ground and her head of white hair aimed at the people she chats with. She focuses all her attention on the local sports teams, baking cookies for the Plato Eagles to eat after every baseball game. She dares not feed them before the games because she fears they will get bloated and fat -- and then they'll lose.

She gives them a little sass along with the sweets.

"I won't make no more cookies if you don't beat this!" she yelled at a batter at a recent game, seated in her usual lawn chair in the shadows.

She hollered at the umpire after a strikeout.

"Hey! Come over here! I wanna talk to you! I wanna know why you weren't at my celebration today!" she said, smiling, referring to the Census Bureau event.

She baked 600 cookies for Plato's center-of-the-country celebration.

That took her three days, but she'd never complain about it.

She's far too excited about her home being the center of the nation. She says it's about darn time this place was recognized for something this big.

The mayor and the bank robbers

Here's a census of the Plato school band: three trumpets, one tuba, three clarinets, two flutes, three alto saxophones, one keyboardist and one assistant to hold the keyboardist's music in place in the wind. Kimrey and others sat in the shade behind them as they played slightly off-key renditions of "Eye of the Tiger," "Smoke on the Water," and "Don't Stop Believing" during the Census event.

Soon after the band finished, Plato's mayor, Bob Biram, took the microphone on the hay trailer to read a speech his wife had written for him.

He said all kinds of nice things about the town -- how friendly people are, how proud he is of this distinction, even though he knows the people in Plato did nothing to earn it.

But to really see how selfless and almost gullibly helpful this town can be, you have to know a story the mayor doesn't tell in public.

You have to know the one about his run-in with the bank robbers.

Several years ago, Biram was driving down the main road in Plato when he saw an older red Pontiac stuck in a ditch. He reflexively pulled over to help and, without much effort, got the car unstuck and gave it a jumpstart.

Later that day, he went down to Weber's Café for a bite to eat. All the talk was about two men who had just robbed the bank.

The mayor, as it turned out, had jumped their getaway car.

People here seem to love that story.

Before the ceremony, one resident described Plato's designation as the population center of the nation as "the most exciting thing since the bank robbery."

'Nothing really happens'

After the mayor spoke at the ceremony, a school choir sang -- all of them dressed in matching purple robes fitted with purple cowls with Ps on them, for Plato.

At first glance, this made the singers appear to be photocopies of each other. But closer inspection revealed hidden diversity: five wore glasses, one had purple streaks in her hair, and another wore enough blue eye shadow to make Lady Gaga wince.

There were 20 singers in all, and a clear majority made vaguely constipated, sun-in-the-eyes faces as they sang "Cross the Wide Missouri."

"It's so hot," one said, stripping off the robe right after the song.

Not all of Plato's young people are sold on Plato's version of the American Dream, the one where not much happens and everyone's up in your business.

"To me, nothing really happens -- except for this.
--Yazzmin McCain, age 16
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Career opportunities in town are limited, as even the mayor will admit, and industry is declining. The town grocery store closed down. So did the gas station. Most adults either farm, work on a nearby military base, or drive an hour or so to another town for jobs.

Yazzmin McCain, a 16-year-old who was one of the only African-American people at the celebration, said she wants to move to Boston as soon as she graduates.

"To me, nothing really happens -- except for this," she said.

Platonic suburbs

At the climax of Plato's Census ceremony, public officials lifted a red-white-and-blue quilt to reveal a stainless steel disk that commemorates -- and ostensibly marks -- the population center of the United States in 2010.

That foot-wide disk, set in a granite pillar and located next to the town gazebo and post office, was put in place for the ceremony and for tourists, who've already been driving through the area to check things out.

The literal center of the national population, however, is 2.9 miles away, on Hartzog's cattle ranch.

It's part of what you could call the Plato suburbs.

Hartzog, 73, a lawyer who lives in St. Louis but spends several days a week here in his hometown, said he's happy the actual center fell in the woods on his property, which has been in his family for about 130 years.

He was born in the white farmhouse that still stands at the entrance to the land. Rafters in the basement date to the 1880s and still have bark on them.

Hartzog's ancestors came from Germany. He thinks they stopped over in Indiana on their way to Missouri, making them part of our national story of migration and change. The always-shifting nature of things is the real American narrative, he said, and we shouldn't get too hung up on that as we look to the future.

As most people here say, he'll never abandon Plato.

Even if he lives elsewhere.

CNN's Katie Hawkins-Gaar contributed to this story.

 
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