MOUNT STERLING, Iowa — The mayor of this tumbledown town of liars wants his neighbors to stop fibbing -- and he's proposed a law to keep them honest.
A big, blustery man fond of blue-and-white-striped overalls, Mayor Jo Hamlett says he wants to start fining anyone who dares stretch the truth. There are only 53 folks in town -- make that 52, since a jilted boyfriend took to the road -- but if his ordinance passes, Hamlett figures the violations will mount quickly.
Just the other day, he watched as a local by the name of Bob strode into the tavern, boasting he'd just shot a mighty big turkey, 27 pounds if it was an ounce.
Hamlett hauled the bird out of Bob's pickup and plopped it on a kitchen food scale. It registered 24 1/2 pounds. "You see," the mayor said, with a hint of glee, "he added 2 1/2 pounds to that bird." He figured it would be up to 29 pounds the next time Bob told the story.
That's how it's always been in Mount Sterling. Turkeys gain a few pounds with each telling of the hunt. Fish stretch a few inches in the recounting. And don't even ask about the size of the morel mushrooms gathered around here this time of year.
The way some in town tell it, Hamlett, 69, is the biggest prankster of them all. He insists he's simply an honest man. In any case, he sprang his startling proposal on Mount Sterling during the annual budget meeting last month.
The town was debating whether to fill a vacant council seat (an election would cost $230, not to mention the salary of $6 a month). Quite off subject, the mayor stood up and declared it was time to turn his beloved home into a beacon of honesty.
"It would make Mount Sterling a more reputable town, refined and respected worldwide," Hamlett said.
His proposal made the local paper. Soon, Hamlett was talking to reporters from all over -- even Australia.
Along Mount Sterling's six dirt and gravel roads, folks began to wonder whether they could live on the level.
"The town will dry up. That's what it lives on: Bull," said Linda Kennedy, 45, a part-time bartender cleaning the counter at A.J.'s Bar and Grill. She bit into a piece of red licorice, scowling. "The ordinance is the most preposterous thing I've ever heard."
She was warming to a lecture, but Harry Hoffinger interrupted: "How can you tell if someone in Mount Sterling is lying?"
Hoffinger, 60, didn't wait for an answer. "Their mouth is open," he said, chortling. And shut his tight.
Hamlett listens to such exchanges with a spot of unease.
He relishes the thought of prowling Mount Sterling on bull patrol. But in the last weeks he has started to realize that insisting folks stick to the facts just might kill Mount Sterling.
Stories to Tell
Life in a town this small and this remote is all about people -- and the stories that connect them.
This is a place without cell phones, without pagers or Palm Pilots. Many folks don't have answering machines. Days are not scheduled minute by minute. Coffee dates are not set up weeks in advance. Even the hours at A.J.'s are loose: "7 a.m. to 11 p.m.???" the sign reads.
In the summer, Mount Sterling sponsors "Mud Run" competitions on Mosquito Field; before a whooping crowd, local guys rev their pickups through a goopy, chest-deep ditch.
Many homes have satellite TV. And from October through April, the town of Memphis, Mo., 22 miles away, shows movies twice a week at an old-time theater; the current feature is Disney's "Jungle Book II."
Other than that, the main entertainment is conversation.
People tend to drop in on one another unannounced just to talk. Over fence posts, as their children chase cats through the grass, they swap gossip. Over iced tea on the porch, they reminisce.
"The miles get longer and the snow gets deeper every year," said June Manary, 57, who spends her time renovating a farmhouse built in 1865.
Some of the old-timers spend days cooking up the perfect yarn to stretch out over coffee at A.J.'s.
As junkyard owner Charlie Brewer, 59, put it: "You add a little bit here, you subtract a little there, and you come up with something great."
"Hey," Paul Morris, 51, called out to a friend at A.J.'s one recent afternoon. "How many mice did you discover in your [hunting] cabin this year? I only got three."
"Yeah, but you got that one that must have weighed 2 pounds," the bartender, Kennedy, goaded him.
"Oh yeah, that one," Morris said. "The tail alone was 3 pounds! I had three guys pulling at it and they couldn't get the mouse out of its hole. It's still there, behind the wall. Cats won't even stop by my place anymore."
Down the bar a bit, George Hoffinger, 57, was dishing out his favorite recipe for morel mushrooms, fried up in butter with some eggs and cracker crumbs. "You know," he said, "I have these amplifier earphones, and when you put them on you can hear those mushrooms growing."