Kansas towns: Centers of everything

02/13/2011 2:09 PM

02/13/2011 2:09 PM

LEBANON — The center of America might be mistaken for the middle of nowhere.

But not by Kansans.

"I have always been here. It is just home. It is not a big town but we are blessed with business," said Lori LaDow, president of the Lebanon Hub Club, the town's chamber of commerce, and co-owner of LaDow's Market, which sells souvenirs — T-shirts, mugs, magnets, pencils, pens, postcards and key rings — boasting Lebanon as the "Geographical Center of the Conterminous U.S."

This patch of land has been described as the heart of America.

For mapmakers and surveyors, this portion of Kansas is one of the most important spots on the continent. From this point, all distances in North America are measured.

Kansas boasts three centers: the continental center, the geodetic center and the halfway mark.

* Lebanon is the center of the continental United States.

* A hilltop on pasture land near Osborne marks the geodetic center, the center point of reference for surveyors for all of North America.

"When a surveyor checks the lines of your property and uses geodetic markers as a reference point, he is positioning your lot in relation to Meades Ranch (in Osborne County)," said Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey.

* And, a tiny park in Kinsley off U.S. 50 highway is known as the halfway point between New York and San Francisco.

"When you stand at the geographic center of the nation, you are about as far from everywhere as you can possibly be — far from San Francisco, Hollywood or New York," said Thomas Fox Averill, a Kansas historian and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka.

It is an interesting dichotomy — in the center, yet so far, far away.

"Being in Kansas puts you in the middle of time and space," Averill said. "Everywhere you look, there is distance. That sense of being is at the center of the Plains experience, of surviving that aloneness. It forces you to make your own significance. You have to earn your significance."

Lebanon is next to the Nebraska state line, about 20 miles from Red Cloud, Neb., Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather's hometown.

Cather, inspired by the land, wrote:

"Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was away ... the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!"

And indeed, this is the land of sunsets and sunrises; of rich farmland and rolling prairie.

This is the land from which characters are carved and chiseled.

"Milton (Dwight's brother) Eisenhower said we Kansans have interesting character because we are balanced, as we are in the center part of the United States," Averill said. "We are a unique blend of Puritan morality from the East Coast, southern chivalry from the Old South and rugged, western individualism.

"It all comes together to form the Kansas character."

The centers of Kansas

Imagine taking a cardboard map of the lower 48 states and putting the cutout on a needle to find the balanced center — this would be the U.S. Center monument, a small park three miles north and a mile west of Lebanon.

It boasts a tiny chapel, a rock monument with a tattered flag whipping in the wind, an abandoned motel once known as the "Exact U.S. Center Motel-Cafe," picnic tables, sitting benches, a shelter house, a trailer and a handful of cedar trees along with other bushes and trees.

The U.S. Center Monument was dedicated in 1941 as a focal point for tourists, a resting point, a chance to get out of the car, stretch legs and contemplate just how far one had traveled.

It was established as a matter of convenience, said Phyllis Bell, secretary of the Lebanon Hub Club.

At 81, Bell is also the local editor and reporter of the Lebanon Times, once the community newspaper but now a four-page insert in the Smith County Pioneer.

The actual geographic center, she says, is on a neighboring farmer's land, but the family didn't want to be bothered by tourists so the marker was put here. Since then, people have been coming.

No one in town knows for sure how many people — but they all say there have been plenty through the years. Some have even been married in the chapel on the hill.

"There is always somebody out here, especially in the summer," Bell said. "Most don't ask too many questions. They are just glad we are here."

The U.S. Center Monument is different from the nation's geodetic center, located on private land near Osborne, and about 42 miles south of Lebanon's "Center."

The geodetic center of North America was first established in 1901 by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. The survey arcs along the 98th meridian and the 39th parallel, Buchanan said.

Only a handful of people get to go there each year — with special permission from the landowner, said Von Rothenberger, a Kansas author and director of the Lucas Area Chamber of Commerce.

He has been there and says each center has a different feel.

The continental center has a kitschy tourism feel; the geodetic has the stamp of government, he said. The geodetic center is a small bronze circle with a cross-mark.

"It is on top of a hill where you have a 360-degree view of Kansas," Rothenberger said. "This is the point that starts the whole survey, that dictates every legal deed, every map there is. Everything is tied to it. If you want to feel small, this is the place to be."

And, the geodetic center is still different from U.S. 50's midpoint sign in a small roadside park in Kinsley.

The sign marks the 1,561 miles to San Francisco or New York, and was once billed as "Half way there, still long ways from everywhere."

Now, it's "Midway USA."

In 1939, a cover of the Saturday Evening Post featured the sign, then located 2 miles west of Kinsley near the junction of U.S. 50 and U.S. 56 highways, said Ted Taylor, curator of the Edwards County Museum. The sign was relocated in 1952 to the park on the west edge of Kinsley.

"My brother was the first painter of the signs, and vandals kept stealing them," Taylor said. "It took the city 10 to 12 years to decide to move the sign in to town and place it high enough nobody could walk in and take it."

Even now, people will stop and take pictures of themselves with the Midway USA sign, Taylor said. And, they will come into the museum, open only five months of the year, to buy souvenir plates and lapel pens marking Midway USA. The museum averages 1,500 to 1,700 visitors a year.

But the Kinsley marker is no match for Lebanon's center.

'A friendly town'

The 86-year-old mayor of Lebanon's 260 residents describes his hometown as a progressive community, safe to live in.

"We don't have to worry about somebody getting after us in the dark," Duane Ream said. "We don't have crime out here."

In recent years, there has been a renewal of town pride, with people sprucing up the look of the town. Ten buildings, once considered eyesores, have been razed and cleared; junked cars have been towed away; and a new community center is being built, he said.

"People are concerned about the town and are working together," Ream said.

They are people like Gladys Kennedy, who has lived in Lebanon for all but one of her 93 years. Folks in town call her the local historian.

She was born in the house that her son and his wife now occupy, next to the Ford garage her father used to run on Kansas Avenue.

The town, she says, was founded in 1873 a couple of miles from where it is now. It was moved in 1887 when the railroad came through.

And the way the town got its name?

It wasn't because of any great influx of Lebanese immigrants, she said, but from the Bible, from Old Testament references to the cedars of Lebanon.

In the early days of the community, Kennedy said, people didn't know they were living in the center of the nation.

But once the area was declared the geographic center of the contiguous (or conterminous) United States in 1898, it seemed right to build a center honoring being in the center.

The centers were perhaps more celebrated during the 1930s through 1950s, Buchanan said. Less so now, in part because interstate highways offer more direct routes across country.

Still, visitors to Lebanon are welcome.

"This really is a friendly town," said Connie Herndon, Lebanon city clerk.

Today, the town boasts a beauty shop, a bank, a local co-op and grain elevator, grocery store and service station.

There is no longer a school. Mayor Ream's high school class of 43 students in 1943 was one of the largest classes to graduate from the town's high school. The school was closed in the 1960s, when it consolidated with Smith Center, 16 miles to the west.

Like many communities across the state, Lebanon is a microcosm for what is happening elsewhere.

Lebanon is losing its younger residents to larger, more urban communities. It still is a strong community, but most of the town's residents are 50 years old or older.

A new center

Historically, Kansas was once perceived as the center of politics — of grassroots populism, public health reforms, civil rights and women's rights.

Perhaps that voice of centeredness started first with the geography.

The classic Midwestern values that once shaped America may once again be back in style, said Brian Mann, a native Wichitan and author of "Welcome to the Homeland," a book that examines the clashes between urban and rural cultures.

"Americans are looking for a new center," Mann said. "There is now more discussion of civility. I think it is code-speak for us wanting to have comfort with our national identity and sense of where we are in the world."

It helps that the coasts are listening a bit more to the Midwest, to what Kansans have to say, Mann said.

"They are listening closely to ideas about limited government and state's rights," he said. "Those ideas aren't coming out of New York and California. They are coming out of statehouses in the Midwest, South and Great Lakes.

"We could all see Kansas playing a more prominent, cultural and political role than it has in decades."

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