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For This Kansas Town, Being The Geographic Center Of The U.S. May Be A Lifeline

Cody Newill
KCUR 89.3
The U.S. Center Chapel in Lebanon, Kansas.

This story first appeared on KCUR's Question Quest. You can find the episode here or wherever you download podcasts.

If you were born in the '80s or '90s you probably spent some time playing or watching Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and the inevitable likely happened — you spent a good amount of time thinking about geography.

But even though I chased Sandiego from Baghdad to Tokyo, she never took me to the center of the United States. Come on, Carmen.

The geographical center of the United States just so happens to be in the middle of Kansas in a small town called Lebanon.

But without Carmen, finding that point was quite the process for scientists in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Credit United States Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
United States Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
A man stands at Meade's Ranch in 1940. The surveying center point was crucial for establishing a geographical coordinate system, but wasn't the true center of the United States.

Finding the center

In those days, members of the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey and the United States Geological Survey set out in survey parties to map the country and establish a reference system for longitudinal and latitudinal marks.

So surveyors picked a spot in Osborne County, Kansas, in 1891 called Meade's Ranch. That gave them a center point to move further out from and create the North American Datum, which was used from 1901 to 1989 for maps and coordinates.

But that point wasn't the actual center of the United States. Kari Craun with the United States Geological Survey says that was a different beast altogether.

"It sounds to me like they actually did a physical representation of the 48 United States at that time and they actually balanced that thing at a certain point," Craun says.

According to documents, scientists with the Geodetic Survey in 1918 made a flat, 2D map of the U.S. — which didn't include Alaska or Hawaii at the time — and then placed it on a piece of cardboard. Then they found where the cardboard would balance perfectly and marked that spot as the center of the U.S.

And while that sounds easy enough, Craun says that method is really sketchy. First, the Earth isn't flat, so a 2D map isn't very accurate. Second, the coastline is changing almost all the time due to erosion and additions.  

Craun also says that, while supercomputers and satellite data could help find the exact center, there just isn't much reason to.

"In 1983, the basis of our reference frame became the center of the Earth," Craun says. "That whole reference frame is used to establish latitudes and longitudes and our GPS system is based on that. So those actually have a real practical application."

Credit Cody Newill / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Lebanon Mayor Rick Chapin (left) and residents Betty Pilcher (middle) and Gary Jepson (right).

Lebanon, Kansas

But even though scientists don't have a use for the center of the U.S., residents and visitors to Lebanon, Kansas, do. 

On a warm late-summer day in the rural town, I saw at least a dozen people show up to the geographical center marker to take a picture next to it or go inside the tiny white "U.S. Center Chapel" on the grounds (which was actually rebuilt after a car accidentally slammed into the original in 2008).

It's there that my coworker Suzanne and I meet with Lebanon resident Gary Jepson and Mayor Rick Chapin. They tell us that Lebanon is a great place to live and has a peaceful quality that you just can't get in urban areas. But the town is also facing problems that many other rural areas are dealing with.

For years now, younger residents have left for cities to look for jobs. That's because farming is much more automated now, putting many young farmhands out of work. Still, Jepson and Chapin say efforts to bring people back have been slowly working.

Journalists and tourists come from across the world to see the center of the U.S. marker, and organizations like the Southern California Motorcycle Association came to the city's summer celebration to attract younger folks to the town.

"So there's a lot of interest in it," Chapin says. "If we can just somehow grab onto that and make something of it. That's the goal of the city."

Jepson says a lot of their efforts have been helped by the town's collective generosity. 

"When people get sick, they do fundraisers. They raise thousands of dollars," Jepson says. "We got grants and did fundraising to get matching funds to do more house cleanups this year."

And as we walk through town later that day, we meet Dana Ladow-Sinauleni. She grew up in Lebanon, and is one of a new wave of younger folks coming into town.

"I've lived other places, I went to college and then left. Then I went to Zambia for two years," Ladow-Sinauleni says. "That's where I met my husband. This is my comfort zone."

She had a daughter, and quite a few other young couples have had kids as well.

"Our average age was in the 70s, now it's dropped down to 32 because we have like six new babies in the last year," Ladow-Sinauleni says. "It's just home. It just means home to me."

There are also residents who have been in Lebanon their entire life because, like Ladow-Sinauleni says, it's simply home. That's the case with Gladys Kennedy, who has lived in the same house for 65 years.

"I was born in Lebanon, and I'm 99 now," Kennedy says with a laugh. "[My husband and I] lived in Rapid City, South Dakota, for about 6 months, but otherwise, been in Lebanon."

She remembers when the town formally dedicated the geographical center marker in 1941, and says it's still a big part of the town's identity. She still has quite a few family members in Lebanon, and in the state.

"I have five kids, 10 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren," Kennedy says with a smile. "And all of my family live in Kansas."

Above all else, it's clear that Lebanon's community is molded by being the center of the U.S. And Chapin hopes that'll keep drawing more people to it, whether it's to start a family or just see the sights.

"The town of Lebanon has gone through years of not wanting to take a risk," Chapin says. "And we have, we've brought in half a dozen new families the last couple of years. They know that we care and that we're trying to get some businesses interested in the center of the U.S.A."

Cody Newill is the co-host of Question Quest and the digital editor for KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill

Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.