Belle Fourche, S.D., Designated Center of USA

Belle Fourche, S.D., is little more than a footnote in history books about cattle drives of the Old West. However, the small ranching community now plays a central role in the nation — literally. It has been designated the official geographic center of the country.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Belle Fourche, South Dakota has been little more than a footnote in history books about the cattle drives of the Old West. But now, the small ranching community will play a central role in the nation, literally. It's been designated the official geographic center of the country.

Jim Kent reports.

JIM KENT: If not for its reference in the 1972 Western film "The Cowboys," where John Wayne leads a group of young boys on a cattle drive, most people would never have heard of Belle Fourche.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Cowboys")

Mr. JOHN WAYNE (Actor): (As Wil Andersen) I don't expect to get to Belle Fourche with one single head a beef. Well, I'm cornered, so I'm taking you on. This is (unintelligible). This is Belle Fourche…

KENT: With a population of 4,500, Belle Fourche is still a center for livestock auctions, rodeos, trail dust, and, well, that's about it. But members of the South Dakota community that straddles the Wyoming and Montana borders hope that will soon change.

Ms. TERESA SCHANZENBACH (Executive Director, Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce): Little did we know that this monument was going to be of this magnitude, but we are so proud of…

KENT: Residents, members of Congress, and a representative from the U.S. Geodetic Survey attended a ceremony yesterday to dedicate a monument proclaiming Belle Fourche as the official center of the country. A hog farm near Lebanon, Kansas is still the center of the Continental United States.

Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce director Teresa Schanzenbach says the town earned the designation because geographers included Alaska and Hawaii in their measurements. She says her town is embracing its new claim to fame.

Ms. SCHANZENBACH: There's a variety of reasons why we're making something bigger here. But the major reason is that we want something of significant. We want something of some substance that shows that we're proud to be the center of the nation. And we want to show people that we're proud of that. South Dakota has such a great quality of life and has great, hardworking people. And there is something very special about South Dakota that you will not find it in any other state in the union.

KENT: The monument dedicated here was created by local designer Monty Amende(ph). The massive granite structure is a 21x40-foot portrayal of a compass.

Mr. MONTY AMENDE (Local Artist): This is November zero Charlie, N zero C of the center of the nation Memorial…

KENT: Part of the town's announcement to the world is being conducted via short-wave radio. Craig Nickish(ph) sits in front of a small tabletop ham radio and says he's already spoken to radio operators in 20 states and overseas.

Mr. CRAIG NICKISH: Swede, a fellow from Serbia, two from Japan, Germany…

KENT: Al Shaw(ph) has been a resident to Belle Fourche since 1941. Dressed in the uniform of the local military honor guard, the 83-year-old says he's thrilled to see his town get recognition.

Mr. AL SHAW: Oh, I think it's a real feather in Belle Fourche's cap that they've got this designation as center of the nation. I think it's big time.

(Soundbite of music)

KENT: With the Belle Fourche Cowboy Band keeping rhythm in the background, Teresa Schanzenbach says she hopes that after today, John Wayne won't be the only one who's going to Belle Fourche.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent.

YDSTIE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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