US population center moves 11.8 miles; still in Missouri

AP General
Census-Heart of America

The Census has calculated the mean center of the population of the United States every decade since 1790

HARTVILLE, Mo. (AP) — Some people might describe Hartville, Missouri, as being in the middle of nowhere, but the U.S. Census Bureau on Tuesday announced that it’s the closest town to the middle of the nation.

The hamlet of about 600 people in the Missouri Ozarks is located about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the center of the U.S. population distribution, according to the Census Bureau.

The town is the type of place where families have been farming for generations, everybody knows each other and people stay for the “small-town living,” said Sabrina Gilliland, 38, a paralegal for the local prosecutor, who lives on a family farm with her four children, cattle, pigs and chickens.

Gilliland joked that her mother is “related to half the people in the town.” The four-block center of Hartville has a diner, barbershop, gas station and hair salon.

Pastor Melvin Moon, a Hartville City Council member, is hopeful the new designation brings tourists to the area known for Civil War history, antique shops and rivers popular for fishing, canoeing and kayaking. The Census Bureau will present a plaque to the town next spring.

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

Bypassed by interstate highways and railroads, the town doesn’t have a big tax base or large industry. The local school, a nursing home, the gas station and the Dollar General store are the largest employers. There used to be a lot of farmers in the area, but it’s hard to make a living that way now, Moon said.

“So you have to want to live here,” he said.

The nation’s population center is calculated every 10 years after the once-a-decade census shows where people are living. The heart of America has been located in Missouri since 1980. Previously located in Plato, Missouri, in the neighboring county, it moved only 11.8 miles (19 kilometers) southwest from 2010 to 2020. It is the smallest distance shift in 100 years and the second-smallest in U.S. history.

It also was the southernmost shift in history, said Deirdre Bishop, the Census Bureau’s chief of geography.

“That pull came from the growth in the southeast, in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas,” Bishop said.

The center is actually still closer to Plato than Hartville, but the Census Bureau likely wanted to keep it moving “since it is so tied up in our national psyche with expansion and progress,” said Alex Zakrewsky, who is principal planner for Middlesex County, New Jersey, and has predicted the location after past censuses.

“Hartville also has the additional symbolic value of its name,” Zakrewsky said.

To calculate the center of the U.S., the Census Bureau figures out which spot would be “the balance point” if the 50 states were located on an imaginary, flat surface with weights of identical size — each representing the location of one person — placed on it.

Zakrewsky said he wonders if the center of the U.S. is going to move a lot farther west by 2030 since California, the nation’s most populous state, is losing residents.

“I sometimes speculate that Hartville may be the centroid’s terminus,” he said.

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The fifth paragraph has been edited to correct the word to “distance.”

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Associated Press writer Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.

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