Hartville, Missouri, is the sort of place where people visit along the riverbank as they eat the fish they just caught, or call a neighbor to warn them to pull their laundry off the clothes line before it rains.
It may be far from the bright city lights and better-known areas of the United States of America, but it’s the center of the U.S. in its own way. The U.S. Census Bureau announced late last year that Hartville is the geographic population center of the country.
Each decade since 1790, the census has determined the nation’s center spot — the midpoint if everyone in the country were distributed on a level map. It was first located near Baltimore, a Maryland harbor city that is just 230 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. As U.S. population surged farther from the founding colonies, the midpoint has moved steadily west and, more recently, also south. (Hartville is more than 1,640 kilometers west of Baltimore.)
While Hartville’s place illustrates the nation’s population growth away from the founding areas of the East Coast, its residents say it represents something else important: the best values of small-town America.
“Everyone knows everyone and cares about other people,” says Lauren Hughes, president of the Wright County Community Betterment Foundation, a nonprofit that works with community groups. “Our town is small, but there’s a lot of heart. It seems like you drive through, and there’s nothing there. But it’s the people who make the town special.”
Hughes’ ancestors arrived in the 1850s and, like many other town forbearers, farmed, passing the land and farming traditions down for generations. (Beef and dairy farms are still prevalent.) Today, Hughes and her husband tend to new marriages, not crops: They run a wedding venue.
Although Hartville’s population is just 594 according to the latest count, it’s closely connected to several smaller outlying communities. (The actual geographic center of the United States is a few kilometers from downtown Hartville.)
The Gasconade River, which locals call the world’s crookedest river, borders Hartville on one side, limiting growth. But there is a downtown, featuring one stoplight, a homespun café and farmland just blocks away.
Alderman Mel Moon, who came to Hartville 22 years ago and decided to stay, says that the town reminds him of the fictional Mayberry in old Andy Griffith television shows. In addition to serving multiple terms on the city council — some after being elected by write-in ballots when locals decided they needed him in office whether he wanted to run or not — Moon is pastor of the Hartville Freewill Baptist Church.
Hartville hasn’t escaped some of the travails often associated with big cities, such as poverty or drug addiction. Farming can be economically challenging, and Moon points out that income levels in the area are low on average.
Data USA reports that the median household income of $22,000 is about one-third of that of the country as a whole. But a recent shift to working from home due to the pandemic has meant new families have moved to Hartville, where they can benefit from a lower cost of living. (Some residents commute to the larger Springfield, Missouri.)
“We’ve got our problems like anywhere else,” Moon says, but the town often solves them when neighbors help neighbors. For instance, the Community Betterment Foundation operates a drug-addiction recovery facility in one of its local buildings.
Like many small U.S. towns, Hartville has its annual rhythm of events that knit the community together: a fall festival with a parade, music and craft vendors; truck pulls organized by the civic group Lions Club, where people compete to see how far their truck can pull a weight; and high school sporting events that bring out the whole town.
Change comes slowly — the high school gym built in 1984, Moon admits, is still called the “new gym.”
And one of the town’s claims to fame is the 1863 Battle of Hartville; cannonballs and other artifacts turned up in local fields long after the Civil War.
In April, the Civil War remembrance will be joined by a new marker commemorating the area as the population center of the country. For the next 10 years, Hartville will enjoy its reign at the center of American life.