By Katherine LaGrave / June 2020
North Dakota is the land of honeybees, the white tongues of their homes sticking up from green fields everywhere you look. Legend has it that the state has so many hives you could walk the width of North Dakota without your feet touching the ground.
It is right that honeybees should thrive in the Peace Garden State. With more than 90 percent of its land devoted to farming and ranching, North Dakota is wide open, rich with uncultivated grasslands where bees buzz and fly, marshals of the land below them. And though honeybees don’t spend all year in North Dakota, they always return. Innately, they know how to navigate to their center.
That there is big sky country, my father once said of North Dakota, where my great-great grandparents arrived from Norway in the late 1800s, drawn, too, by the promise of something fertile. I was born in North Dakota, like my father, and his parents. And though my family left North Dakota for Germany when I was three, like bees returning, back to the big sky we go. The geographical center of North America awaits. One of them, anyway.
A Word About Centers
Around the United States, “centers” have long been held up as places with some kind of greater gravity, as if getting there means you can look in all directions and feel something more. But according to the U.S. Geological Survey, there is no accepted definition of a geographic center, and no uniform method for determining it. Any effort to identify a place as such—a “center”—is merely an approximation.
In the past century, a number of states have made a valiant effort to own their positions as “centers.” In 1918, citizens in Lebanon, Kansas, hired engineers to determine that the town was the center of the contiguous states. Castle Rock—in Butte County, South Dakota—claims it is the center of the 49 continental United States; just west of Castle Rock is the supposed center of the country’s 50 states. But it's the geographical center of North America—counting the USA, Mexico, and Canada—that is the most contentious.
In 1931, curious researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey balanced a cardboard cutout of North America on a point to find its center. Using this method, they identified that the heart of North America had coordinates of 48.10° N, 100.10° W. On a map, that put North America’s geographical center 6 miles west of a town called Balta, North Dakota, which is itself 16 miles southwest of a town named Rugby.
Rugby was quick to claim the title: In August 1932, local Boy Scouts installed a 21-foot fieldstone monument near the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and North Dakota Highway 3 with the title, “Geographical Center of North America.” Rugby also changed its seal to an outline of the continent, with the town as a dot in its center. Since then, Rugby has, shall we say, leaned in: the town has a “Miss Geographic Center” beauty pageant, and every final weekend in September, it hosts a fair called “Geographical Center Day” with street dancing, a basketball tournament, and a mechanical bull.
All this, despite protestations from the U.S. Geological Survey, which has never actually confirmed that Lebanon or Castle Rock or Balta or Rugby is a geographic center, writing in a 1964 report: “No government agency has officially established any points marking the geographic center of the U.S., the conterminous U.S. (48 states), or the North American continent.”
Still, you’ve got to give Rugby credit for seizing the moment.
“Ya Oughta Go Ta, North Dakota”
I heard a lot about North Dakota when I was growing up, far from its borders: how it has more wildlife refuges than any other state, how Lewis and Clark spent more time there than any other place on their journey. How Theodore Roosevelt said: “If it had not been for the years spent in North Dakota and what I learned there, I would not have been president of the United States.” Summer reunions comprised relatives and that old rallying cry: Ya oughta go ta, North Dakota / See the cattle and the wheat, And the folks that can’t be beat / Ya oughta go ta, North Dakota / And you just can’t say goodbye.
But in all those decades, I only heard two things about Rugby: that my father had been born there in the 1950s, at a hospital named Heart of America, and that it was undeniably, indisputably the geographical center of North America. So last fall, when the opportunity presented itself to see what was actually in Rugby, I said to my father what my relatives sang: we oughta.
On the Road
Our journey to the geographical center of North America begins before sunrise, when I set off from my apartment in New York and board a plane to Fargo. When I’m 30,000 feet over Minneapolis, my father leaves my parents’ home in northwest Minnesota. By the time I touch down, he’s there, waiting in the car.
For the initial stretch of the trip, we head north on Interstate 29 toward Grand Forks, my father at the wheel and me riding shotgun, glinting fields and Russian olive trees flicking past. Decades ago, my father worked construction on these roads, which curve and straighten, with utter predictability, every five miles.
To hear him tell it, the road doesn’t appear all that different than it did those many years ago when he was hunched over it, under the sun. He’s not one for nostalgia, my old man. What the area looked like when our ancestors arrived is anyone’s guess. “It’s hard to imagine being here, wandering around, with grass six-feet tall, not knowing where the hell you are,” he says.
Our first stop is no center, but the start, in some ways, of my story: the town of Thompson, where my parents bought 12 acres after meeting in the Peace Corps in St. Kitts in the 1980s, trading hot for cold, rain forest for plains, an island for a landlocked state.
When I was born one January, my father was at work, and so my mother drove carefully to the hospital in Grand Forks. When I ask her what she remembers from that day, she responds simply: that it was cold, even for North Dakota, which has temperatures most similar to Orenburg, Russia, in south-central Siberia.
In Thompson this time around, the sky is as blue as the St. Kitts sea, the prairie grasses waving a welcome. We roll slowly through the slow town at 20 miles per hour, past a gas station and the high school. We nose toward the old farm, and my father talks and taps the brakes as we crunch down the gravel road, memory bisecting motion. A hawk dives off a telephone pole into the pool of sky, but it otherwise feels like just us and the wind. My father points. There’s where the pigs got loose. There are the neighbors who watched you and your sister. There’s where your mother and I would walk through the woods, and where we saw a moose crossing the road. There’s where There’s where There’s where.
Compared to the tranquility of Thompson, Grand Forks, 15 miles north, is practically an affront. There are signs for Winnipeg. Signs for Arby’s, Kohl’s, Ashley’s, Hobby Lobby, C’Mon Inn. HELP WANTED. HIRING MANAGERS CREW. We slide into varnished booths at the Italian Moon for lunch, and later, on my way to the bathroom, I recognize my father in a photo on the wall, smiling out from the sunbeam of youth, #22 on his high school basketball team. Phil Jackson played basketball in North Dakota, too, he reminds me, when I return and lean over a plate of chimichangas to share what I’ve seen. We finish eating and drive two miles to the cemetery to pay respects to my grandparents, our shoes squelching through wet earth. There is no place to buy flowers, so instead we brush off their graves with our empty hands.
As we drive out of Grand Forks, turbines twirl in the distance, large wind wheels at work. Neat rows of trees form shelter to protect farms from this very wind, which is lassoed and redirected to become energy. We pass Devils Lake, the largest natural body of water in the state, its name a loan translation of Dakota words mni (water) and wak’áŋ (“pure source,” or spirit).
We don’t stop again, really, until we reach Leeds, where we idle our car outside of a powder blue home and a man comes out to ask us, tightly, politely, what the hell we’re doing here. My father tells him that his grandmother used to live in this very house. “OK,” says the man, turning the flag of his back to us. Isn’t it funny how the things that were once ours never quite stop being so.
A Great Debate
One day in the 1970s so otherwise unmemorable he can’t recall when it was, David Doyle was sitting at his desk in the office of the National Geodetic Survey, the government agency responsible for determining the country’s points of latitude, longitude, elevation, and shoreline. (Its tagline: “Positioning America for the Future.”) Someone thunked down a manila folder. Straining at its seams with files, it had only one word on it: Centers.
Initially, Doyle thought he was being pranked. Punished, in some way. After all, inside the folder, there was nothing scientific or geodesic for the scientific geodesist to look at. Instead, there were hundreds of letters from citizens about geographical centers, some dating back to 1945. Why am I stuck with this thing? Doyle remembers thinking. But with more time, with more letters, Doyle’s perspective changed. “What I came to learn and appreciate was that people take this stuff really seriously,” he says.
Perhaps more than anywhere else, debate about centers is taken most seriously in North Dakota. Because in a state that ranks last for tourism’s economic impact and 46th for visitor spending, having some claim—however small, however quirky—means something. It means visitors. Income. An attraction to build a dream on. It’s no surprise, then, that Rugby’s declaration as the Geographic Center of North America hasn’t been without controversy. After all, thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches. Addendum to the good book, or something like it: Let the center of it all not boast about its center.
Whispers began traveling across the plains in 2015, when the co-owners of Hanson’s Bar in Robinson, North Dakota, pulled out a map and decided that the geographical center of North America was actually closer to Robinson than Rugby—a few feet outside of Hanson’s Bar, as a matter of fact. They had a decal made to mark the spot, and a dedication ceremony to paste it on the floor of Hanson’s, which bills itself as the oldest bar in North Dakota.
“We’re not geological scientists or anything,” says Bill Bender, one of the owners of Hanson’s, of the method they used to determine the geographical center. “It was rudimentary, admittedly. But what we did was far more scientific than cutting out a piece of cardboard and balancing it on a point. That’s not science. A child could do that.”
By 2016, Bender had done more than staked a verbal claim: After discovering that Rugby hadn’t renewed its patent on the phrase “Geographical Center of North America” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, he paid the $350 to purchase the phrase. Almost immediately, Bender received a letter from Rugby’s town lawyer, asking him to kindly reconsider the designation. He said he’d rather not.
Across the region, the move was akin to David toppling Goliath. “North Dakota Bar Owner Pulls Off a Monumental Coup” crowed one headline. Wrote another reporter: “In this version of events, Rugby is like a municipal Phaethon, riding high on the geographical sun chariot loaned it by the USGS’s Helios until—inebriated by its own sense of centrality and asleep at the wheel—it veered dangerously off course and was finally thunderstruck by the patent-poaching Zeus, Bill Bender.”
In early 2017, another Zeus struck, this time in the form of a geography professor at the University of Buffalo, who posited instead that the continental center was 145 miles southwest of Rugby, in a town called Center, population 588. To Center, so named centuries ago because it was thought to be the center of Oliver County, the designation was an ordainment—even if it took a little while for someone to take the scientist seriously.
“When they contacted the city, the city person kind of blew them off,” says Dave Berger, a lifelong Center resident and Community Club member. “But then they contacted the county agent’s office, and he’s the one who contacted me. And then it just kind of took off.”
By early 2018, Center, too, had added a monument to mark its claim, a 30,000-pound rock sitting on a bluff 4.4 miles north of the town, with views of the surrounding wind turbines. But unlike Robinson, Center was more open to compromise.
“We did not want to have—what do you want to say—competition,” says Berger, who spearheaded the installation of the marker. “We didn’t want hard feelings. Our goal was not to take the designation away [from Rugby]. So then we came up with the title of ‘Scientific Center of North America,’ and we ran with it.”
In the past two years, more than 350 people have stopped to sign the guestbook at the Scientific Center of North America; all but eight states are represented. And in those past two years, Berger says he’s only encountered one person upset by the claim. (That person was from Rugby.)
Following a years-long legal dispute, in April 2018, Rugby won back its legal rights to a trademark. But the battle in the prairies is far from over. Center is installing flagpoles and signposts and seating around its monument. Robinson, which continues to hold an annual “Center Fest,” replete with fire-eaters and a surströmming (fermented fish)-eating contest, in 2018 established an International Center for Determining Centers, which Bender says will develop a uniform method for determining geographical centers.
“As far as the words, Rugby can have them, and Rugby can use them,” says Bender, who is also the mayor of Robinson, population 37. “But we’re going to have this discussion whether Rugby wants to or not.”
“When science has uttered her voice, let babblers hold their peace,” wrote Jules Verne in 1864’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. But in this journey to the center, the science has been indeterminate, the official government agencies quiet. The babblers know no peace.
The Heart of North America
Rugby is asleep when we roll in at 7:15 p.m., doors shut, closed, signs up, lights off. By 8 p.m., we’re at our hotel bar, pawing at onion rings and sipping a merlot and a Blue Moon.
Founded in 1886 at a junction point on the Great Northern Railway, Rugby was named after the railroad junction of Rugby, Warwickshire, England, in the hopes of drawing English settlers. It was a lukewarm success: By 1920, the town counted 1,424 residents. A century later, that population has ticked up to 2,549, making Rugby the 20th-largest city in North Dakota.
The next morning, we tour the Prairie Village Museum, which has six exhibition halls, 20 fully furnished historic buildings, and more than 50,000 artifacts from and around north-central North Dakota. My father finds a carriage used by his childhood physician to cross snowy fields during winter, and I stand next to a display of the “Scandinavian Giant,” Clifford Thompson, my 5’11 to his 8’. There is also a gift shop at the museum, and we circle the T-shirts, magnets, mugs, and postcards while the shopkeeper watches us with wary politeness. Life Is Better at the Center, everything tells us. My father buys me two bumper stickers with the tacit understanding that we are doing our part to advance the claim of this center.
Right, this center. Finally, it is time to visit the monument, which was moved in 1971 after Highway 2 was expanded to four lanes. Today, it shares a parking lot with an Anytime Fitness and a Mexican restaurant called Rancho Grande. Across the street are a Subway and a Family Dollar. Mexican, American, and Canadian flags clap and crack in the wind.
My father and I stand at the center of North America, eyeing the 21-foot obelisk in front of us. We politely circumnavigate its base, explorers doing their due diligence, examining this stone cairn from all four angles. We take a selfie. I ascend the four steps to sit on a bench beneath the monument and pose for a photo. Signs tell us we are 2,090 miles from Acapulco and 1,450 miles from the Arctic Circle. We are also in the way of drivers in their trucks, looking for parking at Rancho Grande.
After spending what feels like an appropriate amount of time at a monument on a gray day in North Dakota, we drive to Rugby’s Main Street to eat. When the waitress peers down to ask if we are from “the area,” we point at each other: She’s on a tour of her roots. He was born here.
“Oh,” she says, interest alighting in her voice. “So which family are you from?”
You may be wondering: What would it take to accurately determine North America’s geographical center, down to the nth degree? Why can’t this be figured out and finished, the crown officially given to one town, once and for all? For starters, it would require time, money, and labor, none of which the respective organizations responsible for making such a declaration—the U.S. National Geodetic Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey—have any interest in spending, they say. That, and the answer probably wouldn’t change all that much. The Geographical Center of North America would still be in north-central North Dakota.
“It’s like throwing darts,” says Doyle, who retired from the National Geodetic Survey in 2012 after 40 years. “If you hit the bull’s-eye, it doesn’t matter if you hit the center or just inside the black circle. Any one point is just as valid as any other.”
Rugby is not our last stop in North Dakota. In the coming days, my father and I will drive to Esmond and Bismarck and Steele and Jamestown, stopping to see the world’s largest sandhill crane and the world’s biggest buffalo. We will visit more graveyards and drink more beer and be asked again if we are from “around here.” We will see actual bison lumbering beside the interstate and pull off to watch them graze. Perhaps most meaningfully, we’ll walk my great-great grandparents’ land. And four days after we left New York City and northwest Minnesota, out there with the wind and the wheat, we will be home. Centers, it seems, really are where you find them.