A journey to Tebbetts, the center of the U.S.

Sunday, September 30, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:31 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Tebbetts, a small town near Jefferson City, still carries on its heritage with residents who maintain close relationships with one another by having an event such as their monthly dinner at Tebbetts Community Center.

TEBBETTS — There's not much to see at the center of the country.

Tebbetts, a small town east of Jefferson City, has a red-brick community center, a white clapboard Methodist church, a hostel that was once a general store, a converted bank that became a bar and a post office, and a pair of grain elevators.


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Now, this town of 50 to 80 residents has a bigger place on the map.

Two mathematicians from Michigan have determined that Tebbetts is the mean population center of the United States. If you plot every person and where they live, the balance point is Tebbetts.

The town has a long history as an unincorporated community in Callaway County. Now a way station on the Katy Trail, Tebbetts was once a stop on a rail line that crossed the state. When a depot was built there in 1893, the town that grew up was named after Louis Bates Tebbetts, an officer of the railroad construction company.

Relics from the railroad era can still be seen around town. Opposite the Katy Trail, Mike Sellers lives in a log cabin built near the turn of the 20th century. Sellers is an antique collector in his retirement, and many of his items are from Tebbetts' past — including an old Shell Oil Co. glass motor oil bottle he dug up in the area.

Tebbetts is at the middle of the U.S. population because the center of America has been shifting west and south since 1790. As pioneers moved westward, the population shifted in a similar fashion. The addition of Alaska and Hawaii helped speed it up in recent years.

This year, the location of the mean population center is actually in dispute. It could be Tebbetts, or it could be Plato, Mo., about 80 miles south.

It depends upon the methodology used to calculate it.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is Plato, a town of about 110 people. The true center sits at the intersection of two trails in a cattle pasture.

But two mathematics professors at Grand Valley State University in Michigan disagree. Ed Aboufadel and David Austin are critics of the Census Bureau's method of calculating the midpoint and have named Tebbetts as the real center.

Here's a video of reporter Steven Rich explaining how different map projections can affect the calculation of the mean population center of the United States.


The Census Bureau defines the mean population center as the point where a flat map of the United States would balance perfectly if every person weighed the same amount.

You would see as many people north as you would south, as many west as east.

The bureau uses a two-dimensional map in its calculations; the researchers use a three-dimensional globe. The government treats the world as flat; the two mathematicians treat the world as round.

Think about it this way: On a globe, the farther from the equator one goes, the closer the lines of latitude (north to south) become as they converge.

Maps make the lines parallel and space them evenly. On many maps, Greenland and Africa appear to be the same size. Africa is actually almost 14 times the size of Greenland.

The mathematicians tried calculating the center population point on a variety of flat maps and found different results for each — a result the Census Bureau acknowledges.

"You can get a variety of results based on the projection you use," said Kevin Hawley, a geographer at the Census Bureau.

The Census Bureau uses the Sanson-Flamsteed projection, which some find too distorted at the extremes. It makes states like Alaska and Maine seem larger than they are, which spreads out their populations. That ends up pushing populations closer together in states like Georgia and Texas. 

"The choice of projection creates a bias toward southern states," Austin said. "For instance, a person in Columbia counts for only 90 percent of what someone in Houston counts."

Similarly, that projection treats five people in northern Alaska the same as it does for two in Houston.

The method Austin and Aboufadel used — plotting on a globe, not a map — places the 2010 center of the U.S. population not in Plato, but in Tebbetts.

Yet, having this honor wouldn't be likely to change the character of the town very much. The residents would still meet each other in church, have Sunday dinner with neighbors and lead their pets on walks around town.

They would still throw a dinner in the community center on the last Friday of every month. Visitors are welcome.

In August it was a fish fry, with catfish, hush puppies, baked beans and an array of other homemade sides. The community center was hot both inside and out, but nearly everyone in town turned out to eat, chat, play cards and good-naturedly razz the outsiders.

"Try the oysters," they said with smiles on their faces, and they didn't let up.

Then they clarify: "It's mountain oysters."

Bull testicles.

Laughter all around.

It's hard to know how many people actually live in Tebbetts since the census doesn't record numbers for unincorporated towns. A sign on a Katy Trail kiosk pegs the population at 60, but the sign is not dated.

It's small, but the people who live there have big hearts.

When a farmer broke his back one year during harvest, he was in big trouble — until the community stepped up and helped out.

"People pitch in here," said Sam Richards, a resident all of his 57 years. "It's just what we do."

They don't just help their own, either. 

As one of the highest points along the Missouri River, the town has served as a haven when nearby communities succumbed to flood waters.

In 1951, a devastating flood hit the area and there was a typhoid scare. The Methodist church in Tebbetts set up a clinic to treat the sick and prevent the disease from spreading.

As a lifelong resident and president of the Tebbetts Historical Society, Sheila Guthrie is the authority on Tebbetts history.

The town didn't used to be so small, she said. It once had the train depot, a post office, three stores, two hotels, a lumberyard, a lawyer, doctor, dentist, barber, blacksmith, grain mill, grain elevator, two churches and a school.

Guthrie attended the local school, which was consolidated into the Jefferson City Public School District in 1968. The building has now been turned into apartments. 

Perhaps the biggest surviving tradition in Tebbetts is the annual Independence Day picnic, which started in 1948. It's so big that most of the town participates in the planning.

"The picnic has been a homecoming for a lot of people," Guthrie said. "It really helps to hold the community together."

Bill Huffmaster may be the "unofficial mayor of Tebbetts." He has the picnic planning list hanging in his kitchen, and it currently holds more than 50 names.

Huffmaster, who turned 80 over Labor Day weekend, has lived in Tebbetts about half his life. He was born and raised in town and has moved around the country, mostly along the East Coast, before returning to his birthplace in 1994.

His family has lived in the area since the 1840s, about a half-century before Tebbetts got its name. Guthrie, Huffmaster and the others in Tebbetts like their town for its closeness. They see each other every day — on the street, in the post office, at church.

"The idea that people have is that everyone tends to know everyone, and there is a certain sense of shared understanding because most people engaged in similar types of work," said Mary Grigsby, chairwoman of the Rural Sociology Department at MU.

Being christened the population center of the U.S. could do wonders for the town. Advantages may come in both economic and social ways, Grigsby said.

"It would make a community happy because they're now 'on the map,'" she said. "It's also possibly economically advantageous, as it might bring some tourists there."

Last year, officials from the U.S. Census Bureau traveled to Plato to place a commemorative disc in the cattle pasture to mark the center of the U.S. population.

The difference between the census map and Aboufadel and Austin's map is fairly small — only 80 miles. So, really, the exact location may be less important than the overall shifting pattern of the U.S. population.

"The movement of the (population) center from decade to decade is more important than the actual location of the center in any given decade," Hawley said. "Different projections will provide different results, but we would expect the trend to be similar."

Whether Tebbetts is officially recognized as the mean population center of the United States may not matter much to its citizens, either.

They will keep having community dinners on the last Friday of each month. They will continue to celebrate the Fourth of July with a picnic. They will continue to welcome all comers into the community.

The town may even see a small population boom. Guthrie has seen apartments go up with people moving into this small town.

"Tebbetts is starting to grow again," Guthrie said. "I'm excited that we're about to get an influx of people."

Supervising editors are Jeanne Abbott and Laura Johnston.

The U.S. Census Bureau plots mean population centers using a Sanson-Flamsteed projection. Researchers at Grand Valley State University have plotted points using a three-dimensional version of Earth, which they say eliminates projection bias. Click the image above to view an interactive map plotting both sets of points for every census from 1790 to 2010.

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