LOST SPRINGS — The reflective green sign off U.S. Highway 18/20 causes most who pass to double take, then hit the brakes.
Drivers turn around, flip on the emergency blinkers and pull out the camera.
Then they turn north, over the railroad tracks and onto Main Street to see if it’s really true. With the U.S. population at more than 311 million, the world population creeping toward 7 billion, it seems impossible that a town could be home to one person.
And Lost Springs is not.
The sign has proclaimed a fallacy for a decade. The census got it wrong.
The official survey to count everybody in 2000 missed this town’s other four residents, 80 percent of the population. To the U.S. Census Bureau, they didn’t exist, lost somewhere in the Lost Springs prairie.
But now, the 2010 census data shows something different. Lost Springs has a population of four, both in reality and officially. For the first time in a decade, everyone has been counted. Found.
Yes, they are few. But they are here.
“Yes, we’re a tiny place,” said Mayor Leda Price, “but there is a lot of history here.”
This is Lost Springs: Price, a certified nursing assistant who also runs the bar, a catering business and hunting camp; Lost Springs Store owner Art Stringham; his brother, Alfred Stringham; and his brother’s girlfriend, Paula Johnson.
Main Street stretches for one block. Price lives on the west side of the street, above Lost Bar. The others live to the east, the side of the street with a town hall, a park and public bathrooms and Stringham’s store, which also serves as the post office.
Art Stringham works for a railcar repair shop during the week, opening the Lost Springs store most Fridays and weekends. The shop is filled with antiques, dozens of salt and pepper shakers, glass soda bottles, 50-cent paperbacks, cards, earrings, puzzles and keychains. Two mail routes go out twice a week, and 16 post office boxes are rented.
Stringham moved to Lost Springs with his parents and siblings in 1969, three years before Price and her husband. His parents, “auction and yard sale freaks,” ran the store for decades and collected the items Stringham sells.
In Price and Stringham’s time, Lost Springs has never been home to just one person. But the novelty of being so small attracts a crowd. Stories and photos of Lost Springs have appeared in National Geographic, Life magazine, The Washington Post. The BBC filmed the town’s American Revolution Bicentennial celebrations in 1976.
Stringham made wooden nickels a few years ago to hand out as souvenirs: “GET LOST IN LOST SPRINGS WYOMING.”
Reporters and tourists have inquired so many times about the population that Stringham has a stock response: “I just say that they only counted one side of the street.”
Price tried to correct the census figures in 2000. All residents filed their forms, she said.
“None of us know exactly what happened,” she said. “I made a lot of calls. ... It was like everybody was passing the buck.”
People joked that she should cross the “1” out and write the correct population on the sign with a marker. But that would be defacing a road sign, and Price wouldn’t do that.
Price was so annoyed with the last census she and Stringham talked about not turning in their 2010 forms, not until someone guaranteed they’d be counted properly. In the decade between census periods, two residents died and one moved in, population settling at four. They decided to send in their paperwork.
In terms of revenue, being a town of one or four doesn’t make much difference.
“For us it’s just piddly,” Price said.
Still, in a town where each person represents one quarter of the population, it’s nice to know you count.
A monument on the west side of the street, Price’s side, details Lost Springs’ story. It was incorporated July 31, 1911. There was once a school, a jail, newspaper and printing press, pool hall, grocery stores, a livery stable. The bar used to be a bank. The town had an estimated 280 residents in 1920. Many worked at three nearby coal mines. When the mines closed, people left, Stringham said. When the bank owner died, so did the bank, Price said.
She heard several buildings burned down when a group of kids riding in the back of a wagon were playing with matches. Over the years, residents moved or died. Town hall has been used for many things, Price said, from baby showers and card parties to weddings and funeral luncheons.
Lost Springs celebrated the country’s Bicentennial 35 years ago with seven residents.
For a while, Stringham left, too. He served in the Army from 1982 to 1994, in Georgia, Hawaii, Missouri and Operation Desert Storm. He’s been to 21 countries. But he always comes back to Lost Springs.
“This is home,” he said.
“I’ll die here.”
The Census Bureau previously estimated there were four towns in the country with one resident: New Amsterdam, Ind.; Goss, Miss.; Hoot Owl, Okla.; and Lost Springs.
According to the Bureau and its 2010 figures, none of them report one resident anymore, replaced by a new crop of five places with an official population of one: Hobart Bay, Alaska; Willow Canyon, Ariz.; Monowi village, Neb.; Bonanza, Utah; and Laurier, Wash.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation replaces population/elevation signs every census period. If weather tears one up or the reflective sheeting loses its shine, the department steps in before that. Otherwise, communities on the state highway map wait a decade for a sign makeover.
Mark Williams, traffic engineer for WYDOT District 2, which covers Lost Springs, spoke with his sign foreman Thursday morning. He’s started ordering new signs for the district. Lost Springs will likely get a thin aluminum overlay to cover the old marker.
Williams predicts the district will replace signs in late spring, early summer.
Perhaps Lost Springs will get its sign in time for centennial celebrations. The town commemorates 100 years beginning May 20 with music and dancing. There’s an auction, the 29th annual, scheduled for the first Sunday in June. It draws people from across Converse and Niobrara counties in eastern Wyoming. Price always cooks roast beef, plus eight or 10 pies.
She hopes someone will want to come take pictures then, when the new sign goes up. From “POP 1” to “POP 4,” all counted at last.