Internet puts Kansas farmhouse as center of U.S.; some shady characters come calling

After a company pegged the Taylor farmhouse as the IP address for the center of the U.S., all sorts of people came calling.
After a company pegged the Taylor farmhouse as the IP address for the center of the U.S., all sorts of people came calling. Courtesy photo

Joyce Vogelman Taylor, 82, remembers when her family bought a Delco electric generator that brought light to the family farm just north of Potwin.

Taylor’s father, who lived all 85 years of his life in the house, bought a toaster and light bulbs, the kinds of things that made life easier, she said.

It was 1942, 40 years after the house was built by her grandfather about 40 miles northeast of Wichita.

Taylor is glad her parents are not around to see the harassment she has endured the past five years because of the internet, as first reported by Fusion.

“The family is well known for being honest and upright,” Taylor said. “And I resent this. I feel like we are being attacked, which we are.”

I resent this. I feel like we are being attacked, which we are.

Joyce Vogelman Taylor, farmhouse resident

In a strange twist that the local sheriff has called “crazy,” people started calling and showing up at Taylor’s home in 2011 asking for runaway children, long-overdue back taxes and stolen goods. IRS agents and police officers showed up looking for people who had never lived there.

The Vogelman family was known for its quiet, unassuming contributions to the community, according to local Sheriff Kelly Herzet, who went to school with Taylor’s children. So when he made visits to the house, starting around 2011, he knew something was awry.

All the people who were showing up claimed that the IP address for their complaints was associated with the front lawn of Taylor’s house. An IP address is like a physical address, except it’s for computers, phones, iPads and other electronic devices. Like a mailing address, the IP address helps tell computers where to send information and where information is coming from.

Herzet said he and his officers had to do some research to understand what IP addresses were, and even then they were confused about what was going on. That’s because the young farmer renting the house in 2011 didn’t have a computer, let alone internet access.

So the sheriff posted a sign on the edge of the property telling people there had been some mistake and telling them to call the sheriff. Officers also put up video cameras so the family would feel safe. Taylor’s lawyers sent take-down notices to websites that accused her of being involved in nefarious activities, but to little avail.

It wasn’t until Sunday, when Fusion published an article that explained just what had happened, that Herzet finally put the pieces together.

The problem stemmed from the Massachusetts company MaxMind, which helps companies learn where in the real world their internet traffic comes from. It finds ways to associate IP addresses with real locations.

Sometimes MaxMind clients just want to know what state or city internet traffic comes from. But sometimes, companies want to know an exact house so they can send letters telling people to stop downloading illegal movies and music.

Many times there isn’t an exact mailing address that directly corresponds with each electronic IP address. Instead of leaving it blank, MaxMind puts the location in the center of whatever large area it has narrowed the IP address down to.

For the center of the U.S., MaxMind put a pin on 38 degrees north, -97 degrees west, i.e. Taylor’s house. That latitude and longitude isn’t exactly the middle of the U.S., but when you round off the numbers, that’s where the company decided to drop its pin on the map.

“Somebody somewhere at a company decided to drop a GPS coordinate that looks like the middle of the U.S.,” said Richard Stevens, a partner at Martin Pringle, who represents Taylor. “But when you zoom in, that lat-long point looks like our client’s property.”

In fact, Taylor’s home was associated with 600 million different computers and devices that connect to the internet, more than 10 times as many as any other physical address, according to the article in Fusion.

“We were aware there were all these (GPS) entries, but we had no idea the scale, that there were 600 million of them,” Stevens said. “Imagine if 600 million IPs pointed to a GPS coordinate that was your front door.”

Imagine if 600 million IPs pointed to a GPS coordinate that was

Richard Stevens, attorney

Some of those 600 million devices were bound to be used for illicit purposes. Both law enforcement agents and ordinary people showed up, sent messages and called over the past five years.

“The last call I got was very aggressive,” Taylor said.

When an Eagle reporter read the Fusion story to Taylor on Monday, she said, “Yay!” when she heard that MaxMind was planning on moving the center of the U.S. away from her house and onto a body of water.

“I do not know anything about the internet,” Taylor said. “I really don’t. I just know about being harassed.”

Stevens, Taylor’s lawyer, said: “We are thrilled with the possibility at least that there is somebody out there responsible for this who can correct their errors. We’re always happy to see solutions for our clients whether they come from us or not.”

Taylor said she had not received an apology from MaxMind.

“I just hope they care,” she said.

If her age didn’t get in the way, she said, she would move back to the farmhouse she grew up in, where she and her renters suffered through years of harassment.

“(The farm) was so quiet and peaceful,” Taylor said. “I loved the neighbors.”

She said her parents played cards and went out to dinner with the same friends once a week for more than 60 years of marriage.

Taylor uses a computer to type up her monthly Sunday school lesson at Hillside Christian Church and to keep track of her finances. But that’s about it.

She doesn’t want anything to do with social media, even though her grandchildren tell her it would make it easier for them to send her pictures.

She wants them to send her pictures, she said, just not that way.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison