What it Means to Be From Maine, Decennially Speaking

Politics is popping up like a Jiffy-Pop pan on a hot stovetop around here! Getting into a pretty exciting season. I’ve got several posts in various stages of development but I’ve got too much going on to finish any one of them to satisfaction. Luckily, it’s never too late or too soon to pontificate on all things demographic.

This post is brought to you thanks to my son, who in the car today asked me, “Mom, where’s the middle of Maine?”

I said, “Well, do you mean geographically speaking or in terms of where the people are?”

He is six, so I am pretty sure this was overthinking the question.

He said, “You know, where is the middle of the state?” so I said, “Well, in terms of land I’d say it’s a little above Bangor, but in terms of people it would be a lot closer to Portland.”

Where do you think it is? Guess, then scroll down.

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It’s Brownville Junction – I was way off.

Now, what about our population center? According to the US Census, the “mean center of population” calculates “the the point at which an imaginary, weightless, rigid, and flat (no elevation effects) surface representation of the [geographic entity] would balance if weights of identical size were placed on it so that each weight represented the location of one person.”

This was a new thing for me to check out this evening, and I was really delighted to find it presented so comprehensively by our friends at the Census. Here’s what they put together to show the movement of the country’s population center between 1790, our first national census, and our most recent decennial census in 2010.

us pop centerOther fun facts available at the Census reveal that our national population center shifted the greatest geographical distance (and in a westerly direction) between 1850 and 1860. Our population made its most northerly shift between 1860 and 1870. And between 2000 and 2010, we collectively moved our greatest distance south.

So what about Maine? What do you think is our current population center, and how far do you think it’s moved in the last 100 or so years? Guess, then scroll down.

MaineOnce again I was way off! If you click the map above you’ll go to the Google map I made using the US Census files on state population centers. In the late 1800s through early 1900s, our state population center hovered around Athens and Harmony. It did drift south over the next hundred years, but somewhat less dramatically than I had imagined.

For the period between 1910 and 1950, the mean center of our state population stayed fairly close to Skowhegan. In 1960, it shifted fairly dramatically, to just south of Waterville. Since that time it has been shifting regularly south, with our present population center lying in the eastern reaches of Augusta.

I think it’s useful to think about this in connection with our observations about the state. We spend a lot of time thinking about southern Maine as the state’s primary economic engine – and it is indeed very important – but it’s also important to reflect on the fact that we live scattered across a very large geographical territory, with more people distant from that environment than living within it. This is the meaning of being the most rural state in the US.

And who is going to best be able to leverage this complicated distribution to his advantage come next fall? A great question for an upcoming post!

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3 Responses to What it Means to Be From Maine, Decennially Speaking

  1. alant14 says:

    Was guessing the population center somewhere between Waterville and Augusta. I live in Sidney so there may have been some bias.

  2. george smith says:

    Delighted to find out, here in Mount Vernon, that we are near the center in all things. The southern shift of population, however, driven by economic opportunities, is just one of many signs of the struggle to maintain viable rural communities.

  3. Jeremiah says:

    Ah, but what would the centroid of economic activity be, perhaps based on overall state GDP? I would suspect more south and west than the population map centroid lies.

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