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A Town Truly in Middle America

Steelville, Mo., has put itself on the map by using its designation as `US population center'

By Laurel Shaper WaltersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 1994


IF you don't live here, you're a little bit off center,'' the proud residents of Steelville, Mo., say.

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And at least until the year 2000, it is tough to disagree.

Following the 1990 United States Census, the Census Bureau determined that Steelville is the population center of the country.

This is truly middle America. The population center is the geographic point that has an equal number of people living north, south, east, and west of it.

When the first census was taken in 1790, the country's population center was near Chestertown, Md. But it has moved southwest every decade since then, traveling more than 800 miles to end up in Steelville in 1990.

Actually, it was nearly 1992 by the time Steelville was officially designated the nation's population center. ``You know how the government works,'' says Bob Bell, a lifelong Steelville resident and brother of the mayor.

But this small town (population: 1,465) on the edge of the Ozark Mountains has used the quirky statistical honor to further its goals. Signs along the highway advertise the ``Population Center of the USA,'' encouraging tourists to stop by for a visit.

``We only have it for 10 years, but it's a big plus,'' says Bill Freeman, a local businessman.

There's a bronze plaque in the Steelville Community Park that tells visitors that ``the actual 1990 Census center of population is in dense woods 9.7 miles southeast of this location.''

Steelville's proximity to that point has brought the town more fame than anything since the Cherokee Indians were marched through here on the ``Trail of Tears'' in 1830.

Many people in the region still make their living farming or harvesting timber. Despite the name, there's no steel manufactured here. The town was founded as Davies before the turn of the century, but when a man named Steel came along and bought it, the town became Steelville.

In the 1920s, Steelville was a booming county seat. Before the man-made Lake of the Ozarks was built northwest of here, this was a popular tourist destination.

``In the '20s, they came to Steelville,'' Mr. Bell says. ``Now, they go to the lake.'' But Steelville is slowly beginning to steal back tourists. Fishing enthusiasts appreciate the area's clean rivers, and floaters bring canoes and rafts.

Last year, the Bell family bought and reopened Wildwood Springs Lodge, a 53-room hotel that was built in 1922. After being closed for the past 12 years, the lodge has been brought back to life.

Publicity helps

The surge of publicity brought by the population-center designation has helped boost the revitalization projects already under- way in Steelville.

``When people began to look at what we were doing, they latched onto the idea that this is a little town that is pulling itself up by its bootstraps,'' says Pete Lea, vice president of Peoples Bank on Steelville's Main Street. ``People have gotten the pride back.''

``It has just kind of fed on itself,'' Mr. Freeman agrees. In recent years, more and more residents have joined the effort to bring back Steelville's shine.