A town in the middle

A Romanian student travels to Edgar Springs, Mo., the center of America’s population — where people, not fame, have changed the community.
Sunday, June 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

For a few seconds, I stood on a sun-burnt bronze circle planted into the ground to mark the country’s “center of population,” a few feet to the right of the cemetery in Edgar Springs.

For those few seconds on April 19, I stood in my black Adidas sneakers, put my feet as close together as I could, looked down and pictured myself balancing the United States on my finger — half the population to my left, half to my right.

Imagine a flat America, where everyone is home and by a miracle they all weigh the same. If all that were true, the country would balance in Edgar Springs, a strip of land about 20 miles south of Rolla, one of those don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it towns.

If a post-modernist sculptor had been paid to create a monument to the town, the work could have been made up of 190 Greek columns to represent the people of Edgar Springs. But such a designation doesn’t warrant such a sculpture because the residents don’t really care about the designation. America will have to find its own balance.

These people care about Wednesday night barbecue steaks and Friday catfish jamboree at the local Town Café.

The café is probably where Edgar Springs would balance, at least during those two nights, when both the fire chief and the café owner work the grills like madmen.

It’s been three years since Edgar Springs made national news after the U.S. Census Bureau announced it as the current balance point of weight in America.

Fame, though, didn’t change a thing — people did. Fame did not burn down the old convenience store. Fame did not shut down the Hot Lips restaurant. Fame did not elect a mayor. Fame did not rebuild the store or reopen the Town Café. What fame might have done is bring in a Conoco station a few feet to the left of the cemetery.

But that is not part of this story. People are.

The café and “forget store”

I stepped inside the John K. Widener store a little after 8 a.m. on a Monday. It was chilly inside the two-story wooden building, cold enough to keep the produce fresh. The merchandise was lined up against the wall on wooden shelves and metal racks. No discernible aisles — certainly no grocery-cart racing lanes like Wal-Mart has.

Lynn Caldwell was the first person I met, standing tall in his white polo work shirt and jeans. Lynn, who is 68, and his wife, Gayle, own both the store and the Town Café connected to it. You can actually walk into the café from the store. Lynn was about to have breakfast. It got cold because I wouldn’t stop questioning him. Most of the store burned down in July 2002, and that’s when he bought it. The store returned to Gayle’s family, who had owned it for most of its more than 100 years of existence.

After the fire, the Amish rebuilt the wooden structure for $8 an hour. They also helped turn the old feed store into a café. For nine months, the town survived without a “forget store.”

Last March, the “forget store” reopened. Lynn calls it that because locals who shop in Rolla almost always forget something. I almost forgot Lynn had to eat.

Cindy Walton, the former owner of the store and now a waitress and cook at the café, had already called him in to eat. Twice.

The café was much warmer and brighter. There were a couple of guys having their morning coffee, slouching in the red leather seats and benches. The room had a bunch of round wooden tables, and the walls were decorated with framed pictures that chronicled the history of the town. The informal exhibit was labeled: “Remember when.” Behind the counter stood a silvery impressive double-pot coffee machine I couldn’t take my eyes off of. It brought an urban coffeehouse feel to this out-of-the-way small-town diner.

I had no cash on me because I learned during my first year in the United States that you can survive in America with plastic cards. Not in Edgar Springs. They take plastic at the post office, but stamps and envelopes do not soothe my hunger.

I was offered anything I wanted — free. Journalists should not take anything for free, so I held my ground proud. That’s until Cindy stared me down in a high noon culinary challenge. “Hey, I make good breakfast!” she said. That was a threat! I was not a journalist anymore. I was a 12-year-old obeying Grandma — even though Cindy was much younger than my gray-haired Romanian grandmother.

Biscuits and gravy, bacon, eggs, toast and sausage came to the table, and I washed them all down with coffee while taking notes. These people were too nice. For the first time in my life I understood how Henry Miller, the rebellious writer of the mid-1900s, drove across this country with no savings. People feed you.

People make the town

“Is your mud still cold?” Jim McFarland, one of the customers, asked me. He was holding the coffee pot, ready to give me a refill. Built like a bear, with a solid chest that provided a resting spot for his wiry gray beard, he was by no means employed as a waitress. But at the Town Café, everyone felt at home. In a corner, on a table, there was a stack of photo albums with pictures of local people — from the early days of black and white to modern studio portraits of the town’s young.

After breakfast I sat down with two seventy-somethings, Thelma McBride and June Ousley, two town girls ready to serve some Edgar Spring memories. They have been here so long it was hard for them to pick out the best stories. It might have been the vaudeville, working at the cream station or the mill where they used to play. Or maybe it was trading onions and lettuce for a white poodle, the Dairy Queen or the day the town got a sewerage system. Or the movie theater that played “talkies.” Talking movies were good. Back in the days of the silent flicks, the less-educated used to read aloud so they could make sense of the movie. Thelma said it drove her crazy. June remembers going to the movies with Thelma’s son, Jerry.

“We went to one of those when they were stealing dead people,” Jerry, who had joined us at the table, told me. Jerry McBride is the go-to man in town. He was in the state legislature for 26 years, so he knew how things go. His hair was neatly combed to the side. He smelled of morning aftershave. If something goes wrong, people come to him.

“You never get out of the business,” he said.

I asked Jerry and Thelma about the town’s story. They gave me a couple of versions with little detail. Edgar was the man who built a trading post by a nearby spring, Jerry recalled from a story his grandfather had told him. Or Edgar was just a bootlegger who sold “white lightning,” the homemade liquor common to the South, as Thelma said.

“It used to be a pretty rough little town,” she confessed.

A 1953 poem, now framed in the café, tells the story of those days, when people were quick to draw and accurate with their shots.

“If someone hates you have a care

“That a bullet doesn’t part your hair

“They’ve all got ‘shootin’ arms’ to spare

“Up there at Deadcur Springs.”

“Deadcur Springs” is weird in more ways than one. They went without a mayor for the past few years until Kenny Mansfield decided to step up. He told me he ran for mayor simply because there wasn’t one.

With his hands tucked into his jeans and his untidy mustache, he seemed as good a mayor as anyone else. After all, he volunteers his time. While I was in the café, he volunteered to help Jojo, one of the waitresses, take some dairy products out of the fridge.

Though Kenny is a volunteer mayor, City Hall does have employees. But when I tried the door about 11 a.m., the building was locked. The city clerk waved from across the street, standing in the doorway of a white rusty building that houses the water works. Pat Eberhardt is both the city clerk and the water works secretary. To switch jobs, all she had to do was cross the street. She shut down City Hall early on this Monday because of some water problems that needed to be taken care of. The water office had a couple of crosses made of mirror glass, a meeting table, some drawings and a jar of candy inside.

I asked Pat whether the town had any kind of “center of population” (it’s what they call the balance of weight) memorabilia. She told me they made T-shirts for fund-raisers, but that’s about it. They don’t care too much about that.

I left Pat to her work and crossed the street again, headed for the post office next to City Hall. The building used to house the old post office, and the post office is now in what used to be a big garage. Jerry told me that some years back, Edgar Springs struck a deal to bring two banks to town. One coughed up the cash to turn the garage into a nice space to share with the post office. That never happened, as both banks got in trouble.

Now the post office stands as a high-tech building compared with most of the wooden saloon-style houses on the old highway, now the town’s main street.

Betty Kinder, the postmaster, was not particularly thrilled to see a reporter. She told me that some of those who came through were snotty and ready to kick Edgar Springs around as a hick town that happened to be famous because some satellite said so. Betty said the “center of population” didn’t change a thing. The Town Café and the people did.

“Seems all you have to do is open up a food joint,” she told me before she started to talk about how many people gather at the café on those special Wednesdays and Fridays.

Pride and community

I sat on a guard rail outside the post office, staring at the water tower somewhere to the east. The main street was deserted — suitable for the wind to blow some bushes from left to right like in some Western B-movie. But that didn’t happen. It was hot outside now, even though the sun had decided to sit this day out.

Some hundred feet to my left, the beauty shop was getting a spring cleaning. The parlor gizmos — hairdryers, chairs, tables, even a sink and cabinet — were now in front of the building, the face of which seemed to need a makeover, too. To my right, the road led down to Gene Blake’s firehouse. Some birds were striving to make noise, but all the quiet was punctuated by the continuous snapping the cable made while slapping the flag pole. That’s one of the sounds I associate with this country now. Flags and flag poles are a reminder of the sense of pride and spirit that are universal to this country.

Edgar Springs was lively in spite of its surface lethargy. You could see that in the people. They couldn’t wait for those steaks on Wednesday or the catfish on Friday. They did not gather around the “center of population” plaque to dance and thank the gods of migration for their luck. They could care less about that. That didn’t change the town. The people did.

Edgar Springs is not about the “center of population.” It’s about being a small dot in Phelps County, with a Town Café, a hub that hosts its soul.

“A place where good friends meet,” a sign inside the café read.

And eat and live, I would say.

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