A handwritten note taped to the gasoline pump outside Thomas Tire and Service reads: “We are out of gas. Sorry.”
That’s one way to look at Mercer County, among the poorer and lesser populated counties in Missouri. Fuel can be had at the Casey’s General Store near the county’s only traffic signal.
One other way to describe this hilly region on the border with Iowa is in a phrase sprinkled throughout the Hometown Cafe in Princeton: “Faith. Family. Friends.” Owner Sharon Clingingsmith calls it the diner’s motto.
Still another slogan that applies? “Make America Great Again.”
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This is Donald Trump country.
In the presidential primary last spring, Mercer County weighed in with the highest percentage of Trump supporters of any county in the state: 60 percent of GOP voters favored him against 11 others on the ballot.
It was not even close. Second-place finisher U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas couldn’t even draw half of the 455 votes that Trump got.
And yet livestock producer Jim Holt, a Trump supporter, confesses: “I don’t like Donald Trump. He looks to me like kind of a showoff.”
Holt suspects that the New York City billionaire would have trouble making friends if he were to take up residency in Princeton, population 1,200. The way he speaks of women would spread through town fast, and vulgarity doesn’t play well in a community where some of the largest buildings are churches.
Strangely, however, Trump’s flaws can make him appealing to voters seeking a president who could shake up Washington. He may be a jerk, but thank God he’s no rehearsed politician, his backers here say.
“If you like what we’ve got now — open borders, Obamacare, higher taxes — then don’t vote for him,” said Holt, 66, after ordering a cheeseburger at the Hometown Cafe. Trump may not fit in around here, he allowed, “but he’d fit in a lot better than Hillary Clinton.”
Deer scamper across the hills of Mercer County, the birthplace of Calamity Jane. Camouflage is the leading fashion. But people are disappearing — a population of nearly 15,000 in 1900 is down to 3,700.
The residents — 98.7 percent white — value their land, their work ethic, their faith, firearms and the Second Amendment. City dwellers buy land just to hunt.
And all walks of life are welcome to join them here, said retiree Ed Johnston, “as long as you assimilate to the living standards and ideals of the community.”
Every elected position at the Mercer County Courthouse belongs to a Republican, save for one — commissioner Duane Hobbs, a Democrat appointed in January by Gov. Jay Nixon.
And Hobbs, a former sheriff whose family goes back forever, just might prevail in the general election despite his party affiliation.
“With local offices, most people here vote for the person, not the party. They all know you,” Hobbs said. “But they look at national politics in a completely different way.”
Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the 1970s. All of that changed as battle lines formed over gun laws, abortion and religion.
Anymore, “people would vote for Charles Manson if he were running as a Republican,” said independent voter Larry Pollard.
Pollard and his wife, Kiera, on this day seem to be the only customers at the Hometown Cafe challening the Republican line. “Trump scares me to death,” Kiera Pollard said, though she will cringe when voting for Clinton.
She said: “I’m embarrassed with this whole presidential campaign.”
And much of Trump country agrees.
Trump’s smug. “He speaks before he thinks,” said Johnston.
But Trump’s not Hillary.
For Carolyn Sealine, who works at a retirement center in Princeton, the U.S. Supreme Court hangs in the balance. She had supported Republican Ben Carson until he exited the presidential race and endorsed Trump.
By the end of summer, “prompted by the spirit,” she said, Sealine had supplied the county with Trump signs.
“I’m happy to say that I ordered 100,” she said, “and I have them all gone. It was my privilege to do that.”
It came to a Trump sign for every 16 Mercer County households.
America’s smartest man
Nine miles northwest of Princeton lives Christopher M. Langan, heralded by Esquire magazine and other national publications as the “smartest man in America.”
A former bar bouncer in New York City, Langan reportedly has an IQ between 195 and 210.
British television first tracked him down in the 1990s, having been referred by high-intelligence societies to which Langan belonged. ABC News followed with a 20/20 feature.
More recently he was written up by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers.” Gladwell depicted Langan as a musclebound genius who grew up poor and quarreled with teachers, never to be given a chance to succeed in school.
The 140-acre horse ranch that Chris and Gina Langan bought in 2004 to escape the bustle and expense of the East Coast spreads out from a front yard of dilapidated vehicles.
The couple keep to themselves on the roller-coaster hills of Highway P. And like the bulk of their neighbors, they support Trump.
“Consider that this is a ranch, and we don’t like government intervention or intrusion more than anyone else around here,” said Chris Langan, who greets you with a crushing handshake. “There’s no funny business (with Missourians). They know what they like and stick to it.”
He said Mercer Countians are “salt of the earth,” independent in their thinking but happy to stop and help if your car breaks down. He likes also the freedoms that come with living in the remote Green Hills region of north-central Missouri.
“I could shoot off a Saturn rocket in that pasture” and nobody would complain, he said.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Montana, Chris Langan, 64, will never be regarded a product of Mercer County. But as the smartest man in America (a title that he says makes him uncomfortable) he agreed to jot down for The Star some thoughts on why residents favor Trump, beginning with: “They see Trump as a capable businessman whose expertise could help to improve an ailing economy.”
As for Hillary and Bill Clinton, “as nearly as I can gather, (Mercer Countians) fail to see how the Clintons have made $100-200 million while supposedly functioning as honest public officials,” he wrote in an email.
The Langans, by contrast, make a few bucks selling hay.
‘She calls us deplorables’
Several miles east in the town of Ravanna, a Trump banner eight feet wide stretches across the yard of Kathy and Bruce Cassidy. Extension cords carry juice to illuminate the display at night.
“We’re Trumpians and proud of it,” said Kathy Cassidy, who would advise Trump to quit interrupting Clinton in debates.
“Just let her talk and dig her own hole,” she said. “She calls us deplorables. A person like that can’t connect with middle-income or lower-income Americans.”
As for Trump using crude language in a video that caught him bragging about groping women, Kathy Cassidy is OK with the candidate’s apology for his “locker room talk.” She said that’s what men do when they get together.
The video hit the news a day before the the biannual meeting of Republican women representing several counties in north Missouri. Sealine attended along with 30 other GOP faithful, and not one rescinded their support of Trump.
“They felt that we probably all have said things 10 or 11 years ago that we wished we hadn’t,” Sealine said.
And for even longer, nearly 20 years, Wood Holt has carried a Ruger .357 pistol on his hip.
It’s legal. Back when state legislators were debating concealed-carry proposals in the 1990s, Wood Holt — brother to cafe customer Jim Holt — took to expressing his right to openly carry a weapon.
“Never had to use it and wouldn’t want to,” said Holt, who stays active at age 70. Last year he rode his Harley Davidson to Florida, bought a cherry snow cone and rode back.
He owns Wood’s Gun Shop, which he said never saw better business than when President Barack Obama pledged to stiffen firearms laws in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“Obama has been the best gun salesman ever, and Hillary Clinton would be, too. But in a couple of years her rules would shut down my business,” he said.
Back at the Hometown Cafe, Trump detractor Larry Pollard shook his head.
To hear his neighbors talk, every Democrat is a gun-grabber.
“I’ve been hearing for eight years that Obama wants to take our guns away,” he said. “He’s had eight years! You know, people need to do their research.”
For Amy McDaniel, a Princeton physical therapist, one policy position ought to seal the election in Mercer County: Clinton has proposed increasing the estate tax to a top rate of 65 percent; Trump wants to repeal it.
She said if the rate jumps, farm families won’t be able to pay the tax bill when their land passes from one generation to the next.
“I look at policies more than anything,” McDaniel said.
But to be frank, “half the people around here voting for Trump? They just can’t stand Hillary.”