National Geographic : 2001 Nov
jolted by a deafening 12-gauge report. Then he pulls the barrel out of the sunlight, ejects the spent shell, and returns to his seat to find out if his aim was true enough to win the pork chops or ham or beefsteaks in this fund-raiser for the high school baseball team. In Steelville, a hardscrabble town of 1,429 about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis, there has never been a clear line between recreation and nutri tion. With spare rolling hills and vistas just big enough to take them in, this portion of the Ozarks foothills seems to have been created to fit the scale of the human eye, but the land isn't good for growing anything but trees. The homesteaders who arrived in the 1830s counted on deer, tur keys, and squirrels to augment their minuscule harvests of beans, taters, and corn, and with more than half the current households taking in less than $15,000 a year, a lot of Steelvillians still do. Steelville was once the demographic center of the United States (the 2000 census has moved that spot west to Edgar Springs), but the challenges of this beautiful, unbountiful terrain have given the town a character well outside the mainstream. America's culture is about getting rich. Steelville's is about getting by. It's one of the few places left in the continental United States where living on little more than skill and resourcefulness is not a disgrace but a point of pride. Earl Halbert, 89, and Eldon Dunlap, 85, are high priests of the old Ozarks lifestyle. Dunlap describes his Depression-era child hood as "a world of trouble," in which his whole family lived on the three dollars he brought in a week, and Halbert recalls how he once quit an aboveground day job for night shift in a bauxite mine because it paid an extra 50 cents a day. Yet both seem more If everyone In the United States were balanced on a map, a trucker crossing Steelvile's Main Street would once have strad dled the center of gravity. David Helmering (below) doesn't go downtown to be at the center of Amer ica. He just likes the food at the Spare Rib Inn.