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Belle Fourche, South Dakota: Center of the Nation

Belle Fourche, South Dakota, is little more than a footnote in U.S. history books about cattle drives of the Old West. But last week, the ranching community announced to the country (and the world) that it plays a much more important role in the nation, as the official geographic center of the 50 United States.

If John Wayne hadn't pointed it out as the destination of his cattle drive in the 1972 western The Cowboys, most people would never have heard of Belle Fourche. With a population of 4500 and little changed over the years, the town is still a center for livestock auctions, rodeos, trail dust and… that's about it. But members of the South Dakota community that straddles the Wyoming and Montana borders hope that will soon change.

In a ceremony attended by local residents, Congressional representatives and a member of the U.S. Geodetic Survey, a monument proclaiming Belle Fourche as the official center of the country was unveiled.

The community's journey to this moment began in 1959, after Alaska and Hawaii became states, expanding the nation's territory - and thereby moving its center to the north and west.

Chamber of Commerce executive Teresa Schanzenbach explained there were a variety of reasons Belle Fourche officials made such a show of the geographic uniqueness of the town's location. "But the major reason is that we want something of significance. We want something of substance that shows that we're proud to be the center of the nation. South Dakota has such a great quality of life and such great hard-working people. There's something very special about South Dakota."

Although the actual geographic center of the 50 states, located just outside Belle Fouche, has been marked for years with a solitary red fencepost, the community felt it was time to provide a more significant symbol of their status.

The monument dedicating that status, designed by local artist Monte Amende, is a massive 6.5 by 12-meter compass rose. Amende said his goal was to create an image that would be understood by people universally.

Part of the town's ceremony was conducted via short-wave radio. Craig Nickish was among the group of ham radio operators who manned their stations to broadcast this historic event. He spoke to radio operators around the world including "a Swede, a fellow from Serbia, two from Japan, Germany, and someone in the Czech Republic." He also heard from mobile radio operators all around the United States.

Al Shaw has been a resident of Belle Fourche his entire life. The senior citizen took part in the day's ceremonies, dressed in the uniform of the local military honor guard. "Oh, I think it's a real feather in Belle Fourche's cap that they've got this designation as center of the nation," he said proudly. "I think it's... big time."

With the Belle Fourche Cowboy Band keeping rhythm in the background, Teresa Schanzenbach said the goal of the fanfare is not just to bring visitors to the small rural community. "I think that when you come to the center of the nation that you're going to feel a quality of life, a sense of community... of things that you really can't find in the world today." She added that people are looking for those good feelings, "and when you come to Belle Fourche, that's what you're going to feel."

And she hoped that now, John Wayne won't be the only one who's going to Belle Fourche.