A CURSORY SNAPSHOT OF PLATO, MISSOURI, THE POPULATION CENTER OF AMERICA:
Doctors: 0. Grocery stores: 0. Gas stations: 0. Stoplights: 0. Population: 100. Population according to the 2010 census: 109 (down because military personnel left) Status: Incorporated village and 2010 U.S. mean population center
What Plato has to say about that: “It’s like winning the lottery without getting any money,” says native Meg Sartain, joking about being the nation’s center. Meg is the daughter of Bob Hartzog, on whose farm, just beyond a creek, deep into prickly brush and pastureland grazed by cattle, lies the population center of the nation: coordinates 37.517534 N and 92.173096 W.
Meg’s grandmother, Hazel Hartzog, used to teach Plato Mayor Bob Biram English. Bob won’t say if he was a good boy or bad boy but says Hazel made him study. She hit. She smoked. She was the type of woman grown men respected. She taught Bob intellectual work, in addition to the physical work he’d learned by picking up hay bales on summer days on Bob Hartzog’s farm when he was a boy: hard, sweaty labor.
Many years he’d worked on the farm that would become the 2010 U.S. population center. And in 2000, Bob did the single deed that would make the farm eligible to be the center.
When he was 56, Bob was volunteering as the village sewage-system cleaner. Because the village needed a new system, Bob petitioned to get Plato incorporated, the first time anyone had thought to do so since its founding in 1858 by Joshua Mc-Donald. The petition worked, Plato got its new sewage system, and in 2010, Plato became the closest incorporated community to coordinates 37.517534 N and 92.173096 W. Nearby, the unincorporated community Roby, despite being 0.9 miles closer to Hartzog’s farm than Plato, was still “just a spot on the road,” like Plato had once been, Bob says. The sewage system lagoon, incidentally, sparkles like a sun-drenched pool near the town’s bus-auto shop.
Plato has so many yellow school buses sitting in its school yard that if the town took a collective fi eld trip, all its residents could have their own seat, be cloned, sit next to themselves, and have their pair of selves be cloned to sit across from themselves, too. To boot, the nine quadruplets on each bus would never run out of stories, no matter how long the trip. Plato residents might be few in numbers, but they are wealthy in local and personal history. Not that Plato buses out; it’s really their neighbors who bus in.
The Plato school district buses in students from towns and countryside 35 miles out. Its campus includes three classroom buildings, a couple buildings with gym equipment and more classrooms, a pavilion, a greenhouse, and a ball field grounded in $3,000 to $4,000 of imported, rain-resistant volcanic dirt. (Former major-leaguer Kennie Seenstra grew up pitching on that field.)
“Our population is 100,” Bob says, “but sometimes it’s 700 or 800.”
That can explain how 500 commemorative postcards have sold out at 50 cents apiece as soon as they landed on the shelves at the local Legacy Bank. It explains how 200 people packed the ball field’s bleachers to listen to U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves celebrate Plato and unveil a standing red-granite monument topped with a silver survey disc pointing to Hartzog’s farm. It explains why Plato never went under as a tiny unincorporated village: Its residents have heart. It is America’s heartland, census-declared or otherwise.
The marker at coordinates 37.517534 N and 92.173096 W is a short pile of rocks with an American flag sticking out of it. Bob says he wants to glue them together to make them more official. His handkerchief hangs from a tree inches away, where he marked the spot in a pinch. Plato is a town full of people like that: ones who’ll surrender their handkerchiefs in a pinch. Bob isn’t even the mayor. People call him that, but a town without 500 residents can’t elect a mayor.
All the people on the west coast plus all the people on the east coast balance out the country so a small town like Plato gets this distinction. And what’d they leave behind in this here Midwest?
“They left the best part,” Bob says.
Watch out for an update to this story in our February 2013 issue!