PIKE COUNTY, Ind. -- To the casual observer, the median center of U.S. population, as determined by the 2010 census, is a rather unremarkable spot in a Southern Indiana cornfield.
It's a lonely place where the broken stalks remind passers-by that last harvest season is well in the rearview mirror, and that the next planting season is still on the horizon.
But for the U.S. Census Bureau, this location southwest of Petersburg, Ind., is a key point on the map for government geographers, who have kept track of the nation's median population center since 1880. Back in those days, it was in Dayton, Ohio.
While this dot on a map might be of note to federal researchers, its newfound distinction doesn't impress 73-year-old Thomas McAtee, who shares ownership of the land with at least a half dozen of his family members.
"This is the first time I'd ever known about anything like that," said McAtee, who lives in a modest house less than three miles from the Gibson County line with a sister and their 81-year-old brother, Billie.
To the uninitiated, think of the median center of population this way: Imagine the U.S., population, 308,745,538 people, divided into quadrants with one line running north and south, the other heading east and west.
Each quadrant contains an equal number of people -- roughly 77.186 million.
The very crosshairs of that intersection rest on the McAtees' property.
The median population center has traveled through Indiana counties for decades. Its latest location is in a field just a few steps south of West County Road 350 North and about 200 yards east of winding Indiana State Road 65. The precise latitude and longitude coordinates: 38.472967 degrees north, 87.410365 degrees west.
The median population center is not to be confused with the nation's mean population center, which, according to the Census Bureau, is now near Plato, Mo. The mean population center is determined by giving equal weight to each individual person counted in the census. It's the place, according to the bureau, "where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all 308,745,538 residents counted in the 2010 census were of identical weight."
"If you look at the movement of the median center over time, similar to the mean center, it does give an indication of how the population is shifting," said Ted Sickley, a Census Bureau geographer.
"But (the median) is a somewhat courser measure of the center than the mean center, which is one of the reasons why the mean center gets a little more press. Because right now, if there were a lot of shifting of people on one side of the median or the other, it wouldn't really affect the median. ... The mean gets a little more attention because it is more sensitive to smaller-scale movements of people."
It's fair to say that neither one will get much attention from Thomas and Billie McAtee. The men said they were more than happy to answer a reporter's questions. But both agree that their land's new distinction is little more than a curiosity to them.
"Is there a cross down on the highway or something like that?" Billie asked.
No, he's told, the line is just an imaginary one, marked by coordinates.
"No, it don't make no difference to me," Billie said. "But I guess it's progress, right?"
Sean McDevitt is a reporter for The Evansville Courier in Indiana