Rugby
A 21-foot-tall obelisk markes the spot the town of Rugby says is the geographic center of North America. The town built the obelisk in 1932 and has trademarked the title. The Associated Press

RUGBY - Should an asterisk be added to the roadmaps, postcards,

T-shirts and a towering stone obelisk that tout this town as the center of North America?

Some believe so because the town's decades-long claim as the continental bull's-eye misses the mark by miles.

The correct spot arguably is in a forlorn slough, smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

North America's nucleus has been debated in north-central North Dakota, ever since Rugby built a monument and museum to milk the distinction.

It began more than 80 years ago when a respected federal mathematician stuck a pin in a cardboard map of the continent and recorded the coordinates of where it balanced on his finger.

"Close only counts with horseshoes, hand grenades and the geographical center of something," said David Doyle, chief geodetic surveyor with the National Geodetic Survey in Silver Spring, Md.

Doyle said even with advanced technology there is no method to get a precise location since the continent is always changing. There is no generally accepted definition of a geographic center and no reliable way of determining it, he said.

Edward M. Douglas' 1928 stickpin balancing calculation "is probably as good a method as any," Doyle said.

Douglas pinpointed the geographic center of North America to be in North Dakota's Pierce County, about 16 miles southwest of Rugby, 5.2 miles north of Orrin, and 6 miles west of Balta. It lies near equidistant - about 1,300 miles - from San Francisco, New York, New Orleans and the old Distant Early Warning line though Canada.

Douglas' calculation was close enough for Rugby, the county seat and its biggest town. Zealous city leaders saw the commercial potential and began promoting the town as the geographic center of North America, and in 1932 built a 21-foot-tall rock obelisk marking the supposed spot.

"I suppose they thought: ‘Let's make some money on this,' and they did and we still have," said Dale Niewoehner, Rugby's mayor.

Rugby has since trademarked the title and threatened a legal action in the 1980s when Pierre, S.D., made a reference that it was the geographical center.

Most people in Rugby think it is the real center, Niewoehner said. Those who know otherwise believe such conversations are for nit-pickers, he said.

"As far as the exact spot, nobody has ever been real worried about that," Niewoehner said.

At least no one in Rugby.

The 60 or so people in Balta believe they have more of a right than Rugby to claim the continent's central mark.

"It's deceiving and it irritates me but it's been that way for years," Balta Mayor Mike Jundt said of Rugby's claim. "Rugby is a little bit bigger town so they figured they'd take advantage of it."

Orrin, which is now a near-ghost town with just a handful of people, is closest to Douglas' midcontinent calculation. Farmer Wendelin Bickler laid claim to the continent's center decades ago and built an elaborate religious shrine he dubbed "Mary the Center of America."

The monument, a pyramid of rocks with a statue of the Virgin Mary and an American flag, has toppled with time and is overgrown with brush. Bickler has been dead for about 20 years, said Joe Bickler, a great-nephew.

"It was his life's work," Joe Bickler said. "He figured he was closer than Rugby so he could claim it."

Joe Bickler recalled a picnic held years ago at the shrine. "One of the neighbors told him, ‘Once your gone, that thing will go to hell,'" Bickler said. "He didn't like that but it's true now in a way."

Wendelin Bickler's farm was purchased a few years ago by Pam Schmidt and her husband to expand their farm and ranch operation. Pam Schmidt also is curator of the geographic center museum in Rugby, which gets about 4,000 visitors annually.

She doesn't mention that Rugby is actually miles from the continental center and that there are other claimants, including the one on land she owns.

"I think it's a little bit of a fib, but at the same time it's an attraction for Rugby," she said.

"Unless somebody asks, we don't tell them," she said. "We sure don't volunteer it, unless they ask."

But any potential question is likely quashed by the sight of the museum, the towering stone monument and state highway signs touting the geographical center at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 2 and North Dakota Highway 3.

The rock obelisk in Rugby is just outside the Cornerstone Cafe, owned by Ronda Bachman-Williams. After she moved from California and bought the restaurant a few years ago, she was informed that the monument outside her business was bogus.

"My understanding is that it is not the true geographical center - a number of people in Orrin and Balta made that clear," she said. "But it is the closest acceptable center."

Bachman-Williams said she has pointed people in the direction of the closer center, southwest of the city.

"If people ask me, I think I owe it to tell them," she said.

Every year, Fred Mitzel Jr. sees a dozen or so lost tourists driving the back roads near his farm, looking for the actual site. He points them to a spot located in a small slough, just off a curve on a gravel road.

"There's not much there," he said. "They do it just to say they were there, and I understand it."

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