THE CENTER’S EXHIBIT ABOUT THE different centers of the USA traveled to different centers of the USA this summer, inside the Center’s mobile exhibit hall. The exhibit, called Centers of the USA, was produced by the CLUI and the Institute of Marking and Measuring, and depicted and described eight different centers, such as the geodetic center, the geographic center, and the population center. The self-contained traveling exhibit made a loop around the middle of the country, stopping to open to the public at a number of central locations, ultimately covering a distance of 2,972 miles. This distance is similar to the length of traveling from coast to coast. If it was divided in half, we would be back in the middle, where we started.
On August 8, the exhibit unit left Lebanon, Kansas, where it had been on view for a year, next to the monument indicating the Center of the Contiguous United States. The first stop on the journey was Thompsons OK Tire Center, in Beloit, 60 miles away, to get some new skins for the long journey ahead.
Dinner was at Bosselmans Travel Center in Salina, with Chris Cook of the Salina Art Center, which had assisted by hosting the IMAM crew when they outfitted the trailer with the exhibit a year ago. Then the crew made it to Topeka for the night.
The next morning, after a visit to Home Depot to beef up the safety chain (and a pledge that Motel 6s were not to be considered in the future, despite their occasional proximity to Home Depot) the crew set out eastward again.
South of Kansas City towards the Lake of the Ozarks, through Missouri towns with funny names like Peculiar and Tightwad, the Exhibit Unit arrived at its first exhibition site: the little community of Plato, Missouri, designated as the Population Center of the USA, based on the 2010 census. The exhibit unit was leveled and steps were set up next to the post office in the middle of town, next to the monument erected by the Census Bureau that spring.
As a few visitors came and went, the crew headed out to see the “actual” population center point as it was mathematically determined, located a couple of miles out of town, in the woods, on private land. (The monument, however, is in the middle of the village, as the land owners, the Census Bureau, and the rest of the community thought that would be a better spot.)
Bob Biram, the unofficial mayor of Plato (it’s unincorporated) took the group to the Hartzog Farm, a couple of miles out of town, where we met Meg Sartain, one of the owners of the old and sprawling farm, who let us through the gate, out to pasture. We started down a path headed towards the spot in the woods where the surveyors from the US Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Census Bureau had first been, in the spring of 2011, to visit the actual spot they had calculated to be the Center of Population. They had left a small pile of rocks to mark the site.
After fording a stream and entering a thicket, the group arrived at a small clearing with the slumped-over rock pile and a small American flag. We all savored the moment of poise, imagining being surrounded, equally, on all sides, by everyone else in America. We were a statistical center of consensus, a remote balanced fulcrum.
The exhibit unit stayed open through the evening, then was opened again the next morning, before we packed up and headed back on the road to the next destination: the Geographic Center of the USA, near Belle Fourche, South Dakota.
Floods had shut down Interstate 29, making a detour necessary to get to Omaha for the night. The next day, heading west on Interstate 90, severe thunderstorms threatened. West of exit 208, when the skies blackened and the wind picked up, the crew pulled over to the edge of the highway and stopped. Just then, a gust came, tipping the exhibit unit, gently, on to its side. The trailer stayed attached to the truck hitch, lifting the dual wheeled F-450 into the air. The police and tow truck came and the trailer was righted, since there was, strangely, no damage except a bit of a twisted hitch.
The crew was on its way again. A visit with a welder in Wall, South Dakota fixed the trailer hitch, and the exhibit unit soon arrived in Belle Fourche. This was the first stop at the Center of the USA, the Center of the Nation Information Center, with several interpretive enhancements made in 2007. The exhibit unit was opened to the public, and passers-by included a number of motorcyclists, as this was biker week in nearby Sturgis.
After some time there, the unit was hitched up again, and taken 20.8 miles north to the “actual” site of the center of the 50 states, located in a field north of town. A few more visitors came in, referred by the Information Center, and following the travels of the exhibit on Facebook.
After that, the unit went to a remote pullout on Highway 85, to commemorate a more obscure Center, located nearby. The Center of the 49 States was the Center of the USA for a few months in 1959, after Alaska had been admitted to the Union, but before Hawaii joined later that year. No monument exists, though the pull-out had some abandoned restrooms, concrete slabs, and a former overlook with a view of the hillside where the 49 State Center remains in its obsolete oblivion.
The next day, back on the road for the long journey back to Lebanon, where the exhibit unit would settle into its new home.
With the Centers of the USA exhibit and tour program completed, the Center’s Exhibit Unit will stay in Lebanon, Kansas indefinitely, to continue to support research and programming related to the central parts of the United States.
Of all the Centers of the USA, the one near Lebanon, Kansas, the Center of the 48 states, feels most like the center to us. With sincerest apologies to our friends at Belle Fourche, South Dakota (the Center of the 50 States), as well as to the entire states of Alaska and Hawaii, it's just a lot easier to imagine a contiguous continental mass’s center than one that balances the “peripheral” states, separated by the voids of the Pacific, or Canada. Even though it isn’t, Lebanon, Kansas seems more like the middle of the USA than western South Dakota does. Plus, Belle Fourche has a fancy new plaza and visitor center about its center-ness, while Lebanon doesn’t.
So with that being said, the Center’s Central States Regional Center is now officially based out of Lebanon, Kansas. The exhibit unit will remain there, open for public visitation, with the exhibit Centers of the USA on view, for the time being. Access information is available by calling the CLUI’s main phone number.
Images from the Centers of the USA Tour