The Geographical Center of the Lower 48 United States, at Lebanon, Kansas
First in a Thematic Extrapolation Series Examining Centers

1219 U.S. Geographical Center Monument, Lebanon, Kansas. CLUI photo

There is no such thing as the geographical center of any state, country or continent.
-Oscar S. Adams, Senior Mathematician, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey

JUST OUTSIDE OF LEBANON KANSAS stands a pyramidal stone monument with a brass plaque inscribed with a bold declaration - "The Geographic Center of the United States." The monument was ceremoniously installed at this site in 1940 (before Alaska and Hawaii joined the union) by the locally run Hub Club, despite the fact that everyone in town was aware that the geographical center was actually elsewhere. According to their own calculations, the "actual" lower 48 center was three-quarters of a mile away, in the middle of a hog farm. But the farmer, Mr. Johnny Grib, was reluctant to turn his farm into a tourist attraction, so the hilltop site was selected instead.

Forty-two miles south of Lebanon, a sign and plaque announce another center: the "Geodetic Center of North America." This sign makes no claims at being the geodetic center itself, rather it indicates that the actual geodetic center lies on private property eight miles away, in the fields of Smiths Ranch, where it is marked with a small bronze geodetic survey marker.

Neither of these monuments should be confused with the Geographic Center of the United States (when you include Alaska and Hawaii), which sits seventeen miles west of Castle Rock, South Dakota, or the Geographic Center of North America, fifteen miles south west of Rugby, North Dakota.

Even if we could agree on which, if any, of these centers is the most significant, we would be wrong to assume that the spots the markers indicate are objective and accurate. Many variables exist when calculating the center of a land mass as large as the United States, and selective criteria and methods can be used, from the selection of different map projections, to defining the periphery of the shape with varying degrees of accuracy.

The Lebanon, Kansas "center," in fact, was determined by cutting the shape of the lower 48 states out of a cardboard sheet, and balancing it on a point. This determination of the "center of gravity" of the country (or at least of a jagged piece of cardboard) was used by the Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1918, and placed the center of the lower 48 states at 39þ 50'N. longitude 98þ 35W latitude. This method, even at its best, is believed to be accurate only within ten or twenty miles. Though the Geodetic Survey would later regret making any official declaration, this early endorsement was enough to enable Lebanon's Hub Club to claim its center as official, beating a few other competing communities for the title, which, it was assumed, could lead to considerable tourist revenue, and literally put the community on the map.

The state of Kansas pitched in to help the poor agricultural town develop its new attraction by paving the one mile stretch off the highway to the monument, and a few years later a motel was built overlooking the monument. But the tourists only trickled in to this remote place, near the Nebraska state line, and the motel closed in just a few years, and never opened again.

Lebanon has experienced an even greater decline in recent years, suffering as badly as any small Kansas town without a job base. The school closed in the 1980's, the stately and crumbling Victorian houses are being bought up by Californian investors, and the motel is now owned by a group from Texas that visits once a year during hunting season.

This center, however, remains on the map, a testament to the collective need to find the middle of things. The park around the monument is still maintained by the Hub Club, and a little mobile chapel, with four tiny pews, sits nearby, a manifestation of the spiritual dimension of centerness and balance. Inuitively, we all know that every shape has a middle, and every country has a center - a heart.

The scientists at the Geodetic Survey, feeling out of place in this subjective and emotional realm, have opted out of the search for centers altogether. Oscar S. Adams, Senior Mathematician for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey wrote in an early essay on the subject, "Since there is no definite way to locate such a point, it would be best to ignore it entirely... the conclusion is forced upon us that there is no such thing as the geographical center of any state, country, or continent." But then he concedes, "This is a case in which all may differ but all be right."