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The middle: Plato, Mo., celebrates being center of country

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 6, 2011 - In Texas County, the village of Plato is the kind of place you can only find on a Google map when you zoom way, way in. The population, according to the 2010 Census, was 109.

But for the past several months, Plato has also been both the mean center of population, according to the census, and the center of quite a bit of media attention.

Wire stories tout the new status of the "tiny village," there's a mention in the Huffington Post and a New York Times Q and A with the village chairman.

On Monday, the U.S. Census will hold a commemorative ceremony to mark the designation, and while it's meant a lot to the people of Plato, the news has also helped remind the rest of the country about people in the middle.

"It gives a little recognition to the Midwest as a whole," says Elizabeth Frisch, the loan officer and bank vice president of Legacy Bank and Trust, which sits just across the street from the site of Monday's celebration. "It just shows that, hey, there are people here, too. Having lived on both coasts, I think you forget about it."

Frisch, who is from New York and lived for many years in California, has lived just outside of Plato for the past 11 years. She has no ties to the area but found it after years of visiting nearby Springfield and has since made it her home.

"It's a very small town," she says. "The school is excellent."

There's diversity because of nearby Fort Leonard Wood, she says. The town is mostly agricultural and also has some retired military.

Piece of History

Robert Dabbs and his wife own Hearthstone Legacy Publications, a Joplin-based company that scans historic maps and books, including first-hand accounts, of midwestern counties.

Over time, the maps of Missouri have changed dramatically, he says, and places that once thrived disappear. "There's a lot of the places that there's no trace left."

Being the 2010 mean center of population will, quite literally, put Plato on the map, both now and in the future.

"It'll be a little footnote for all time," Dabbs says, "even if the town disappears."

"Many people have lived here forever," Frisch says. "Their families have lived here forever."

Monday's event will place a commemorative survey mark across the street from the bank (the actual site is in a farmer's field) and include food and performances by the school choir and band.

"Everyone in town is so excited about this that we're trying to make it an event to remember," she says.

And while people there, including students at the local high school, are excited, "it's not anything they're losing sleep over," says Charles Crain, principal.

He didn't think the designation would affect the town too much, but he has heard of a few strangers stopping by the local diner, although no one's staying at any hotels in town.

"Because we don't have a hotel," he says.

At the bank, Frisch and a colleague have gathered "now and then" photos, showing changes in Plato over time. One image shows a pig drive through town. (It's like a cattle drive, Frisch says, but with pigs.)

Frisch guesses between 300 and 500 people will attend Monday's event.

"The ceremony is at 2," she says. "And it will be over by 3, and by 4, Plato will be back to normal."

But maybe not quite so easy to zoom past.

What's That Mean?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the mean center of population is "the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all 308,745,538 residents counted in the 2010 Census were of identical weight." Plato is just over 23 miles from Edgar Springs, Mo., the mean population center in 2000, and 872.9 miles from Chestertown, Md., where the mean population sat in 1790 after the first census.

Kristen Hare