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Where Exactly is Middle America? - 2002-09-18

You may have heard of "Middle America." But have you ever wondered where one would find the exact middle of the country? Leaving out far-off Alaska and Hawaii, the precise center of the forty-eight states that form the U.S. land mass is located just outside the tiny town of Lebanon, Kansas. America's "centroid," as scientists call it, can be found in a field of milo, a feed grain also used to make synthetic gasoline called ethanol.

Farmer Randy Warner, 48, grows corn, milo, sunflowers, and soybeans in the area, and runs a couple hundred beef cattle as well. "We mounted the GPS (Global Positioning System) on the front of a four-wheel-drive car and drove around out there. And then when all our our signals were correct, why, that's where we said was the spot."

GPS is the Global Positioning System, a handheld digital device that can pinpoint a spot on earth using latitude and longitude coordinates. In this case, the U.S. Geological Survey calculated that 39 degrees, 50 minutes north latitude, and 98 degrees, 35 minutes west longitude was the exact center of the traditional United States.

"They told me there was a brass plate there," says Mr. Warner. "We've looked for it some. But we haven't located it."

Mr. Warner hunted for the marker in 1999 at the request of the producers of the Hollywood science-fiction movie, "X-Files." They were filming a promotional clip where X marks the spot of the true American heartland. Mr. Warner helped the film crew spread seven hundred bags of marble dust in his milo field to form an X.

About one hundred folks from town were included as extras in the filming. That's a third of the people in Lebanon, which sits along the north-central edge of Kansas, near the Nebraska border. To them, the "big city" is Salina, a city of 45,000 about an hour and a half away. Lebanon could be the test case for what some observers have called "dying rural America." It has steadily lost population, lost its high school, grade school, car dealership, and community hall where movies were once shown. What passes for its chamber of commerce, the Lebanon Hub Club, meets only every other month. The town gave up its annual Lebanon Anniversary parade years ago; not enough people were interested in planning it or walking in it.

Phyllis Bell is the reporter for the Lebanon Times, the town newspaper that publishes only once a month. She says there's not much big news. A typical headline in a recent edition read, "Dorothy Fisher has a Wonderful Birthday." "You know, I go to the city sometimes on business and different things," says Ms. Bell. "But I'm always glad to get out of all that traffic and everything and get back home where life is a little slower paced."

The town's unofficial historian and genealogist is Gladys Kennedy, 85, whose husband once owned the Ford garage in town. Ms. Kennedy still sings in the church choir, makes quilts for the town's few children, and is still Lebanon's girl scout leader. "In the summer we decided that instead of going to Hastings [a larger town up in Nebraska] or something like that for our special summer trip, we'd go to Smith Center. And so we went over there, stayed in a motel at Smith Center, and went to the Pizza Hut [restaurant] and went to the courthouse and looked around," she said. "We went to the rest home and sang for them and went swimming in the pool at the motel. And we just had a good time. Although I'm kinda old to be a leader, the girls don't seem to mind, and I sure do enjoy them."

Smith Center, the county seat, itself has only 2,000 residents.

Back in 1940, when Lebanon was much more lively, the Hub Club erected a stone marker and brass plaque in a little park next to what is now that milo field in the geographic center of America. Farmer Warner sometimes stops to chat with the curious visitors from around the world who somehow manage to find the spot. "I've thought about building a golf course out here, because you'd be amazed at how many people tee off at the monument and knock golf balls into this field," says. Randy Warner.

The question Randy Warner is most often asked is simple enough: How did scientists figure out that his field was the absolute center of the so-called "lower 48 states?" He does not know, but Bill Chapman does, and the answer is not what you might expect. Mr. Chapman is the retired chief of field operations at the U.S. Geological Survey. He says his colleagues did not, as one might imagine, stretch a string tightly across a U.S. map from northeast to southwest, and northwest to southeast, and stick a pin where the strings crossed. That logical approach does not work, because the nation is not a perfect rectangle; it has a wiggly border, and one of the strings would stretch over water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Instead, says Mr. Chapman, half a century ago or so, equally simple methodology was used. It was based on the premise that the nation's midpoint is actually its center of gravity. "They had a map sales office. And there were, like, six old topographers workin' in there, sellin' maps. And in their spare time they did this," he says. "They took a map of the United States and overlaid it onto a thick piece of cardboard of uniform thickness. And they carefully cut out an outline of the United States. And then they actually balanced it on a pin so that it was balanced. And they kept movin' the point around until it WAS balanced. They had to do this in a very still room! [laughs]"

Amazingly, computer studies years later confirmed that the spot marking the center of America on that cardboard U.S. map was indeed correct, much to the relief of the folks in Lebanon, Kansas.