EDGAR SPRINGS, Mo. - This is it: the center.
Imagine the United States as a huge, flat map. Then picture all 281 million Americans standing on the points representing their homes. Now lift that map - don't spill the people - and balance it on the tip of a pen. Edgar Springs is the balancing point.
The Census Bureau has it figured: The center of the U.S. population is this friendly little town in backwoods Missouri, a community where you can buy a house for $30,000 and vote for your favorite crayon drawing in the kids' art contest at the Hot Lips Cafe.
It's a town of 190 souls and proud of it - not overeager to grow. A town where kids know that if they goof around outside, someone's going to notice and tattle to their moms.
Sense of duty
No one ran for mayor of Edgar Springs in the election a few weeks back, but four voters wrote in the name of Scott Guay, who runs a flooring business. He's hemming and hawing - "I think I know every one of them that voted for me," he grumbles in mock anger - but he'll probably take the job.
The position doesn't pay a cent, and his office will be nothing more than a desk in the one-room City Hall. But he loves this town and wants to do right by it.
And, after all, four votes make up 25 percent of ballots cast in the election. Considering he wasn't even running, that's practically a mandate.
Lone, unplugged computer
City Hall has a complete, though dusty, set of the Missouri Revised Statues, a dictionary, some files and a novel by Danielle Steele. That's the extent of the library, unless you count the "Joy of Mom's Kitchen" cookbook sitting open by the copier. There are a few file cabinets, a typewriter and a computer, unplugged.
City Clerk Pat Eberhardt, who works 20 hours a week, has tried to freshen City Hall with maroon-and-floral curtains that she made. They're cheery, but they can't do much to dispel the musty air.
Eberhardt doesn't seem to mind.
Nor is she bothered by the view out the front door, of a half-block main street crumbling into ruin: dilapidated buildings, roofs collapsed, walls punched in, listing crazily, as though an earthquake just hit.
Once, the freeway ran right down this street and Edgar Springs buzzed with activity. Families on their way north to St. Louis or south to the Ozarks would stop for gas or a bowl of soup.
Then they rerouted the freeway, the cars stopped coming and, one by one, the businesses withered.
Now it's just City Hall, the post office and J. K.'s Market, which is the place to go if you want to rent a video or pick up a can of beans or get a freshly made bologna-and-cheese sandwich for $1.29.
'Don't worry at all'
None of that bothers Eberhardt as she smokes her cigarettes and tends to the water bills at City Hall. She has lived in Edgar Springs for years, moving back here to join her parents after an unhappy, too-hectic stint in California.
"This is a nice community," she says. "I sit with my front door open until midnight and don't worry at all about someone coming in."
It's a common refrain in Edgar Springs: This is a nice community. Residents are a bit amused by their sudden status as the new center of U.S. population. (They don't need to worry about that too much, however: Steelville, 35 miles northeast, held the center-of-the-country title throughout the 1990s and, although the rumors fluttered on and off for years, David Letterman never did make it there for a visit.)
In any case, folks in Edgar Springs hope the newfound glory doesn't puff the town up.
They like it just the way it is: the houses unique, not cookie-cutter, one painted lime green, one with the Ten Commandments posted out front, one with a yard full of concrete statues for sale, from pink pigs and white geese to birdbaths.
One or two homes have junk cars out front, but many more have swing sets, bicycles and tulips.
Looking out for others
More important, folks look out for one another here. Men jump out of bed to tamp down brush blazes with the volunteer fire department. The younger residents check on the elderly.
The owner of the Hot Lips Cafe, Viola Johnson, posts a handwritten sign apologizing when she has to raise the price of her cinnamon buns to 75 cents apiece.
"It's a good place to live," concludes Leland Mace, 82. "There ain't a whole lot going on, but it's a good place to live."
There are a few things to do. The town edges up to the Mark Twain National Forest, so there's plenty of hunting, fishing and camping.
Each August, the community plays host of Prairie Days. Hundreds of people - mainly friends and relatives who've come to visit - fill the streets for craft booths, water-balloon fights and a big street dance with live music.
Justin Davis, 18, has lived here all his life and works at the auto body shop. Asked what he does for fun, he looks a bit sheepish and says, "You really want to know? I party." He doesn't need nightclubs or movie theaters or bars. He has his buddies, and they're happy. "I like it here," he says.
Davis has stopped at J. K.'s Market for a soda and left his truck running outside, keys in the ignition.
"It's quiet. I don't worry about anything," he says.
Count on a friendly wave
Junior Moore, 24, is perhaps a bit more worldly. He left Edgar Springs a few years ago for Rolla, a college town 20 miles up the road. Now he considers Edgar Springs a bit stick-in-the-mud, the people too "set in their ways."
Then again, he likes how "you can't pass someone here without them waving at you."
Visiting his dad for a burger at Hot Lips (named for the owner's old CB radio handle), Moore considers the news that his hometown is the center of the U.S. population, at least until the Census Bureau recalculates in 2010.
The town will get a plaque and could sell bumper stickers, as Steelville did. But Moore figures the honor won't change much. "Edgar Springs in 10 years will be just like Edgar Springs now," he predicts.
That's fine by Johnson, the truck driver-turned-Hot Lips owner. She leans over the cafe counter, smoking.
"I came to Edgar Springs the day I got out of the hospital when I was born," she says. "I've been here ever since. It's home."