(CNN) -- The tornado-ravaged city of Joplin, Missouri, is an authentic American crossroads, a truck stop and regional mecca with a rich mining heritage that straddles a cultural vein linking the Great Plains and the Ozarks.
Hugging Missouri's southwestern border, Joplin is bigger and more influential than the dot on the U.S. map may indicate, and really can't be defined without recognizing its importance as a hub, its current and former residents say.
The city numbers about 50,000, its two-county metro area in Missouri is about 175,000, and thousands more people live in neighboring regions of Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
In fact, the city says, there are about 400,000 people in a 40-mile radius of the city, making it Missouri's fourth-largest region.
It is inextricably tied -- economically and culturally -- to the smaller communities around it, as people in nearby hamlets travel to Joplin for employment, medical care, a movie on Friday night, or a late night stopover on a journey. And, Joplinites have jobs in other towns outside the city.
"It's easy to look at us and say we're this little hillbilly town in southwest Missouri," said Virginia Laas, professor of history emeritus at Missouri Southern State University. "I think it's unfair."
Founded in the late 19th century, the Joplin area and neighboring parts of Kansas and Oklahoma constituted a major center of zinc and lead mining, starting out with individual operators and followed by bigger companies.
"There's is a real spirit of individualism," Laas said, describing the mining industry's legacy. "Taking care of yourself and doing for yourself."
It's a town with names that ring through American history, Joplin was a hideout for Bonnie and Clyde and their gang in the 1930s and the birthplace of African-American poet Langston Hughes.
The mining industry and the gritty world of the 19th and 20th centuries have faded away and the region has been making the transition to different white-collar and blue-collar industries.
But Jared Roll, a native of nearby Mount Vernon, Missouri, and now a history professor at the University of Sussex in England, said the character of the town is strongly linked with the tri-state mining region.
Roll said the town's "hardscrabble qualities" give Joplin "a wonderful sense of character, a wonderful sense of community, of local meaning."
"It's quite surprising that it has remained as large as it is," he said.
Trucking is a major industry in the region, and highways such as Interstate 44 and U.S. 71 carry drivers to and from big cities like St. Louis, Kansas City, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Little Rock, Arkansas.
Another major place of industry is Missouri Southern State University, a revered institution spared by the tornado.
But as in many American towns, people get an education at a place like Missouri Southern, and then they head out.
"We'd give young people from the area the tools to leave," said Larry Cebula, a history professor at Eastern Washington University who used to teach at Missouri Southern.
"It's the truth. A really bright young person with a college education would head off to Kansas City, Tulsa, St. Louis."
The hospitals are another major industry. There's Freeman Health System, which dodged the tornado bullet, and St. John's Regional Medical Center, which got slammed.
"It seems that most of the jobs requiring college education have to do with teaching, medical," said Lori Bogle, a history professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who got her bachelor's degree at Missouri Southern.
"This is going to be a real blow."
There are other industries in and around Joplin: One is EaglePicher Technologies in Joplin, which designs and makes batteries and battery management systems for the defense and aerospace industries.
"EaglePicher's batteries helped bring the crew of the Apollo 13 home safely," its website says.
Leggett & Platt, in nearby Carthage, is a diversified manufacturer that produces bed and furniture components and other items.
Robert McKinzie, Leggett staff vice president of labor relations, said there are more than 2,100 employees in the Carthage area and many of them are from Joplin.
Wal-Mart's home base is not far away in Bentonville, Arkansas, and there's Empire District Electric, which provides electricity to southwestern Missouri and parts of Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. There also are chicken farms and processing plants.
"The region is sort of a transition between the Ozarks and the Great Plains," Cebula said. "Historically, (with) lead and zinc, like a lot of mining areas, it was sort of a boom and a bust,"
The region is largely white and Protestant, a town full of churches, Cebula said, and it is gritty and blue collar.
He and others note a growth in the Mexican presence and other newcomers, such as Vietnamese. There is a Native American community and many people in the area have that ancestry.
There is a small but long-standing black community. The city has historically appeared to be more tolerant than smaller nearby hamlets in the past, historians said.
Roll said some African-Americans found their way to Joplin when they were driven out of neighboring communities last century.
Bogle, who studied the integration of Joplin schools, said she found it wasn't as difficult as it had been in other cities. It has had more of a "northern attitude" and more of a sense of community, she said.
'It's sort of southern," she said. "But it's not part of the South."
One part of life across this swath of America is the weather.
Three years ago, a tornado ravaged the town of Picher, Oklahoma, 20 miles away, and continued into Missouri. Roll attended a wedding south of Joplin that day, and one casualty of the tornado was a man who had been scheduled to sing at the wedding but was killed in his car on the way.
The aftermath of tornadoes evokes an eeriness, Roll remembers.
"It becomes very, very still, calm, sun-shining."