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Census Finds Tiny Hartville, Missouri, ‘Center of US Population’

December 13, 2021 by Dan McCue
Census Finds Tiny Hartville, Missouri, ‘Center of US Population’
Hartville, Missouri. (Photo by Brian Stannsberry) via Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — For all the talk of census data, redistricting, gerrymandering and other things that divide us, it’s nice to learn that the statistics revealed one enduring truth about America: No matter how big and diverse the United States becomes – as of last April there were 331.4 million of us and counting – at its heart it seems there’s always a small town.

Just as the holiday season got underway, the U.S. Census Bureau announced the latest example is Hartville, Missouri, an Ozarks mountain town of 594 residents that statistically speaking lies just 14.6 miles from the center of the country.

One might ask, “What’s the significance?”

To begin with, determining the actual “center” of the population is something the Census Bureau has calculated since the very first national head count in 1790.

In theory the calculation is intended to help demographers, surveyors and local governments keep tabs on the direction the nation’s population is flowing and how fast migration within states and state-to-state is occurring.

In 1790, for instance, the population center of the country was in Kent County, Maryland, 23 miles east of Baltimore. The center has moved west and gradually southward ever since, though since 1980, at least, it’s been somewhere in Missouri.

“The movement of the center of population helps tell the story of this century’s migration South and West,” said Ron Jarmin, the Census Bureau’s acting director, in a written statement. “It helps visualize where we live.”

In the 19th Century the population moved steadily westward as the population expanded, with the largest movements by miles occurring between 1850 and 1890, when events like the Gold Rush in California and land speculation in places like Oklahoma pulled people toward the western horizon.

More recently the center has been trending more southwestward as people from the Northeast and Midwest have migrated toward the Sun Belt.

Hartville, the county seat of Wright County, Missouri, is located in the south-central part of the state. 

The community was settled in the early 19th Century and became part of the regular route of the U.S. Postal Service in 1842. Much of the original town, however, was destroyed in 1863 during the clash of Confederate and Union troops at the Battle of Hartville.

Though the town rebuilt, its work defined by the low-slung brick buildings one sees in the quiet town today, in 1959 Hartville was devastated anew, this time by a massive tornado that ripped through the downtown business district.

The Grovespring Tornado in 1959 destroyed most of Hartville’s business district, including the post office. There were no major injuries since a warning alarm had given residents time to take cover

Today, people of Hartville describe their community as the kind of place where everyone knows and looks out for each other.

Pastor Melvin Moon, a Hartville City Council member, told Associated Press he hopes the designation by the Census Bureau inspires a tourism boom for the small town, which has long been defined by its Civil War history and antique shops.

“We are truly the heart of America,” Moon told the wire service. “This small town represents what’s great about America still: People are neighbors, people take time for each other and they help each other.”

Next spring, Hartville is expected to receive a celebratory survey monument from the National Geodetic Survey, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For now, Hartville Mayor Rob Tucker is just happy for the distinction. 

“It’s a great feeling to live in Hartville. It has always been a town with a big heart and is now the heart of America,” he said in a statement distributed by the Census Bureau.

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