Plato, Mo. - The Small Town at the United States

Benjamin Hoste

2012 - 2013

(This is an going project.) These photographs explore what I found when I traveled to Plato, Missouri, a rural town with a population of 109 that happens to sit on top of the mean population center of the United States.

The mean population center is recalculated every ten years with each new census, thus making it both

a distinguishing product of the population as well as a seemingly arbitrary spot that may or may not communicate anything interesting about America. Over the last two centuries the mean population center has slowly drifted westward, and as a result could be thought of as a slow-motion replay of manifest destiny.

These photographs are a direct result of a collision between my point of view and what I discovered when I visited Plato, a rural community imbued with a conservative and traditional way of life. This collision forced me to examine how an arbitrary center point embodies both the spirit and realities of America. I chose to focus my camera on nearly momentless, and thus timeless, situations and scenes. My aim with this body of work is to explore both a local and universal understanding of America through the people and landscape of Plato, Missouri.

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  • Barbara Penley stands near a window in her kitchen; her and her husband moved to Plato in 1964, three weeks before the birth of their youngest son. “When we drove up the drive and saw the house we said: this is our house!” Born in 1932 in Honolulu, Hawaii, Penley was ten when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and was grazed by a bullet as she watched Japanese fighters fly over her home. For three days her and her mother did not know that her father had survived the attack.

  • Ceramic lawn ornaments sit in front of Victor and Thelma Arrington’s garage in Plato, Mo. The Arringtons recently moved to Plato, relocating their automotive repair business from the suburbs of Chicago to rural Missouri. Years ago, before they moved, a number of similar lawn ornaments were destroyed in a thunderstorm when lighting struck an animal, causing it to explode.

  • Balloons float into the sky after being released following the annual Roby Parade to benefit the local firehouse. The bal- loons were part of a parade float for Tillie Collier, a six year old battling Spina bifida who had recently undergone her 17th surgery.

  • Shalyn Steinbrink and Dylan Daeis, both 14, stand in the woods on Hartzog Farm near the mean population center. During a church picnic they escaped into the woods to enjoy some time alone. Both are freshman at Plato High School.

  • A map of the United States hangs on the wall in Bob Morgan’s hallway in Evening Shade, Mo. Morgan, born in 1925, used a pencil and string to draw concentric circles radiating from his home in mid-Missouri to measure the distance to nearby Missouri cities. He continues to use the pencil and string to measure the distance from his home to further away cities to determine which team he will root for when he watches football on television.

  • Caleb Patterson, age 4, rests in the grass beneath a flatbed trailer during a church picnic held on Hartzog Farm near the mean population center of the United States. The picnic and accompanying hayride is an annual tradition for Roby Christian Church and its congregation. Three flatbed trucks were filled with hay bails to transport children and their families from the church to the picnic location.

  • A lone truck sits along Highway 32 just outside the border of Plato late in the afternoon as the sun begins to set. Most likely the owner is in the adjacent woods hunting. Archery deer and turkey hunting season ran from September 15 - November 9, 2012 statewide in Missouri.

  • Herb Lindsay and Leon Mace finish their morning coffee at Walt’s Convenience Store in Roby, Mo. Every Sunday a number of older men in the surrounding area gather at Walt’s for coffee, biscuits and gravy, and to play corn hole (weather permitting). As the men slowly filter out they leave cash behind in a collective pile to cover their tab. Walt’s is a Conoco Phillips gas station that sits at the T-intersection of Highway 17 and 32 where one turns off Highway 17 to head towards Plato. “They used to say cheese, now they say chicken shit,” Lindsay said as he was being photographed.

  • Bear Cub Skye Arnold, age 10, of Pack 62 dones a clear poncho during a rare bout of rain. Both he and his brother were in town to particate in the Roby Parade to benefit the local firehouse.

  • Eugene Earp sits in the pews at Plato Christian Church where serves as its preacher. Earp was born in 1933 and moved to Plato in 1946. Earp also works as a contract employee with the United States Postal Service and has delivered mail in the Plato area since 1979. He recently had surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his left ear.

  • Orange ribbon and a bandana mark the tree that stands at the exact longitude and latitude of the mean population center on a private farm outside Plato, Mo. Once the US Census Bureau calculated the mean population center they traveled to Plato to mark its exact location. Locals have come to refer to Plato as the “center of the world.”

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