A Town Truly in Middle America

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

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

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.

In 1992, Peoples Bank put up $500,000 at 5-percent interest for business owners who wanted to restore the storefronts along Main Street to their original 1930s design. ``Interest rates were at 10 or 12 percent then so it was a pretty big sacrifice for the bank,'' Bell says.

But, in the end, it brought more business to Steelville and bolstered the bank's position.

In 1989, nearly 20 storefronts along Main Street were empty. Today, there are almost no vacancies. The street is lined on both sides with small shops catering to every need. There's Bill's General Store, Al's Cafe, Nancy's Antiques, Sherry's Flowers.

``Steelville just kind of hangs in there and keeps bouncing back,'' Bell says.

In recent years, retirees have started moving here from as far away as California. In other cases, former residents who grew up and then moved away have decided to come back.

``They get out in that cruel world where there are drugs and crime, and they begin to think about the peaceful tranquillity of a town like Steelville,'' Lea says. ``And then they start to come back.''

Freeman and his wife Jeannette returned to Steelville, where he grew up, about six years ago. They opened a bed and breakfast in town and a gift shop on Main Street.

``We just ended up back home,'' he says. ``It's always been a town that has good schools, good churches, and good people. It's a very close town. Everybody knows what you've got in the bank or what you don't have in the bank. We're still church-going people on Sunday mornings. We're still what it was.''

Controlled growth

Sure, there have been changes over the decades. But McDonalds and other franchises have not moved into town, and no one really wants them, either. ``We want controlled growth,'' Freeman says. ``We don't want it to run away from us.''

Local investors got together five years ago and bought an abandoned car dealership, turning it into a hotel and musical theater. The 28 investors have gotten their money back plus two 10 percent dividends, Lea says.

``It's a success story of what you hope will happen,'' he says. ``Most of us thought that we were making a contribution to the community when we put our money in.''

Lea has lived near Steelville all of his life, ``except for a short vacation paid for by Uncle Sam during World War II.'' He grew up on a farm about 10 miles east of town and now lives just outside the city limits between his two brothers. ``A very smart man told me that if you choose the right neighbors, you'll never fall out,'' Lea says. ``So I put a brother on either side of me.''

Lea remembers coming into town as a young boy in a wagon pulled by a team of horses. ``I've seen an awful lot of change here,'' he says. ``After the war, like all small towns, it went through the boom and then the letdown. But in the '80s it really took a downturn. It was the determination of the people that really brought it back. They were determined that this town was not going to dry up and blow away.''

So what happens in 2000 when the population center will inevitably move southwest once again? ``That won't slow us down one bit,'' Freeman says. ``We've just used it as a steppingstone.''

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