Karen Herzog, Editor-in-Chief,
Momentum Magazine, University of Mary

Mariah Koenig (left) represents the Rugby Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Cathy Jelsing (right) is the former director of Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum. Both executives spoke highly of Rugby’s civic pride, as they stood under the “HUB” sign, which hangs in the new First International Bank and Trust building at the intersection of US Route 2 and ND Highway 3, across from Rugby’s Geographic Center of North America monument. The “HUB” sign was originally an iconic feature of the Hub complex, which included a service station, truck stop and a restaurant and stood at this intersection from the late 1960s until 2015.

It’s ironic that rural North Dakota—which most Americans view akin to Garrison Keillor’s quip: “not the end of the world, but you can see it from there”—is actually the center of North America.

In January 1931, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) determined the continent’s center literally by balancing a cutout paper map of North America on a fingertip. The balance point turned out to be the city of Rugby, which today has about 2,700 residents, making it the 18th largest metropolis in North Dakota. Rugby is located about 150 miles mostly north and a bit east of Bismarck, the state capital. Definitely in the middle of nowhere as much as in the middle of everywhere.

Rugby was founded in 1886, three years before the Dakota Territory was divided into North and South Dakota. The city was originally named Rugby Junction for the town of Rugby in Warwickshire, England. Rugby Junction was a stop on the Great Northern Railway (now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe [BNSF] Railway), the nation’s northernmost transcontinental railway.

Surrounding Rugby is a highly productive agricultural region, and there are towering grain elevators lining the BNSF railway tracks running through town to prove it. The area’s wheat-growing prowess is also illustrated in the local phone book’s title, “The Durum Triangle.”

Unlike many small urban centers, Rugby is fortunate not to be located near the gravitational pull of larger cities with more comprehensive shopping districts and malls. Instead, Rugby sits in a sweet empty-ish spot that allows a thriving retail and commercial center to survive.

For more than 85 years, Rugby has taken pride in and prospered due to its designation as the “Geographical Center of North America” and has long had the trademark to prove it.
Then the unthinkable happened. Actually, two unthinkables.

Trademark War

: Rugby’s fieldstone monument, which marked North America’s Geographic Center for more than
85 years.

The first unthinkable, some might call claim-jumping. Other people might just shrug—all’s fair in love and war. While rustling a town’s title is not exactly ‘war’—North Dakotans are uncomfortable with hyperbole—the appropriation of the title “Geographical Center of North America” did reach the scale of a serious public scuffle between two prairie communities.

In 2015, Rugby was shaken by a dismaying revelation. Through an oversight, its registration of that title, which must be renewed every 10 years with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, had lapsed. Worse, a bar owner in the little town of Robinson, North Dakota, had discovered this and registered the title at the trademark office, thereby officially claiming to be the Geographical Center of North America.

Rugby’s history and core identity were in jeopardy.

So What?

Markers matter to people living on vast stretches of flat prairie with few visible landmarks. The reassuring spire of a church steeple or grain elevator on a featureless landscape is a way-finder, a home-beacon. It has a name that anchors people on this windswept ocean of grass.

T-shirts honoring Rugby’s monument and its place as the historical center of North America for sale at Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum.

In 1931, Rugby built a 15-foot fieldstone obelisk to mark the exact spot the USGS calculated as the continent’s center. Forty years later, the monument had to be moved to accommodate a highway expansion. After all, as a geographer once quipped to Cathy Jelsing, the former director of Rugby’s Prairie Village museum, just a short walk from the obelisk, “close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and geographical centers.”

But when Robinson claimed the obelisk’s inscription as “Geographical Center of North America,” this longstanding marker was in danger of toppling—and that mattered to Rugby’s identity and well-being.

The obelisk was relocated in 1971 to was the busy intersection of U.S. Route 2 and North Dakota Highway 3, where tourists are more likely to stop, especially in the summer. Tourists in vans, sedans, pickups, campers and motorcycles pull up to take photos in front of the now 21-foot-high marker.

Travelers also visit Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum, where they buy souvenir T-shirts and mugs in the gift shop. Visiting families often have lunch at a local franchise or pick up delicious pastries at the Farmer’s Wife Cakes and then buy gas before heading on their way.

“We see people from Norway, Israel, British Columbia,” said Mariah Koenig, the executive director of Rugby’s Chamber of Commerce and of the Convention and Visitor Bureau. “People from all over the world come to see the obelisk.”

A road sign near the Geographic Center of North America monument in Rugby indicating distances to faraway destinations on the continent.

“Rugby is a place people want to check off their list,” said Jelsing. One visitor even asked for a piece of the obelisk, she said.
In September, Rugby celebrates Geographical Center Days, with craft vendors, food trucks, kids’ inflatables, a parade and a dance. There is also a Miss Geographical Center beauty pageant, attended every year by Miss North Dakota—who in 2018 was Cara Mund, also Miss America.

“That’s what happens in small towns like Rugby, because you are so far away from bigger places,” said Koenig. “You create things that create interest. It becomes part of your identity.”

Proudly, as well, Rugby named several institutions to honor its distinctive character, such as the Heart of America Library, the Heart of America Medical Center and the Heart of America Correctional & Treatment Center.

All of this tourism and economic activity was threatened as Rugby’s claim to fame, its specialness, was in peril.

Hanson’s Bar Caper

Bill Bender, the co-owner of Hanson’s Bar in Robinson, ND, sits by the sign on the floor marking his tongue-in-cheek claim to have determined the correct geographical center of North America. In August 2018, Bender announced that the bar will house—between draft beer spigots—the International Center for Determining the Center of Centers that will be dedicated to finding the center of cities, counties, states, countries and, well, anything. Bender certainly has a track record for putting himself and Hanson’s Bar at the exact center
of a controversy.

In 2015, Bill Bender, the co-owner of Hanson’s Bar in Robinson, discovered the lapse in Rugby’s trademark registration and blindsided
the city with a title raid.

Robinson is located 98 miles south of Rugby and, ironically, with only 37 residents, according to the 2010 U.S. census, barely registers as a pinprick on the map. The town remains officially tethered to geography by retaining its post office and ZIP code, 58478.

Understandably, Bender claimed the title as an effort to resuscitate Robinson, which had almost 200 residents at its peak in 1930. The oil and natural gas boom that regenerated many North Dakota communities is happening many miles away in the northwestern corner of the state.

Now, a blue metal road sign on a power pole at the turn onto Robinson’s Main Street reads “Geographical Center of North America™.” Below, an arrow points north towards Hanson’s Bar at the end of a short three-block-long main drag.

With the exception of a new brick bank, the street is lined with several white false-front stores, which could be straight out of a western movie, and some corrugated metal Quonset storage buildings.

The last stop on the main street, as it trails off to meet a fence where the prairie takes over, is Hanson’s Bar, which was originally Ernie’s (à la Ernie Hanson) and then Hanson’s Bar since 1936. Bender and a friend bought the bar in 2015, and they saw no reason to change the name or update the decor.

Then one night, “we were sitting at one of the booths,” Bender related, “and a guy from Canada said he’d read about Rugby being the geographical center of North America.”

“Everybody knows that’s kind of suspect,” Bender replied. “Even the U.S. Geological Survey says it’s just their best guess. So we started looking into it.”

The USGS calculation in 1931 was hardly precise; determining the center of a geographical regions, especially with coastlines, is notoriously difficult.

Bender did some online checking and discovered by accident that Rugby had let their trademark expire in the late 1990s.

“So we got out some maps,” Bender recounted, and with the help of a friend who was a geography major, they made a lot of mathematical calculations and determined they had as good a claim as anybody to the geographical center title.
So today, the quintessential dark-wood, memorabilia-decorated, small-town bar takes pride in a new addition, a large floor medallion announcing that you are standing at the Geographical Center of North America.

Shock in Rugby

The loss of Rugby’s title was unfortunate, said Koenig, with some understatement.

When the news struck that another town had picked off the title, residents were shocked.

“How could this happen?” they asked. Although bewildered, no one in Rugby was ‘not nice’ enough to point fingers at anyone specific.

Rugbyans were also puzzled. This was not the North Dakota way of going about things.

“If we had even just gotten a courtesy phone call, asking ‘if you guys aren’t interested in it anymore, would you mind if we took it?’” Koenig said.

Bender’s statement that he believes in “coexistence”—I think that’s the word he used,” she said, “didn’t clear anything up in minds of Rugby citizens.”

“We think it’s just confusing to visitors to the state,” Jelsing added. “At first we were scared. Can we still put the monument on our T-shirts? How did this happen?”

The Media Loved It

Meanwhile, word spread. By happenstance, the media discovered the small-town Hatfields vs. McCoys tale.

Readers were fascinated and more than a little amused.

“It was a quirky story,” Koenig said.

As Bender put it, “my buddy’s wife was at a wedding in Wisconsin. She was telling her friends we put in the marker and declared ourselves the geographical center of North America. A reporter from the Fargo Forum was there. So she gives him our info and the story got into the Forum. We hadn’t even gotten the trademark yet. After getting some calls, the Associated Press picked it up. Then I registered it. Once the Wall Street Journal picked it up, it went all over the place. That was the big break.”

Hanson’s Bar in Robinson, ND.

Although the title tug-of-war between Rugby and Robinson has been characterized as a humorous tempest in a teacup, capturing the geographical center title was more than a lark to Bender. Part of claiming and holding a trademark is to “prove use,” Bender said, “that we’re actually doing something with it.”

The “doing something” became a yearly festival called Centerfest, which began in August 2016. Centerfest involved free camping, a food truck, street performers, comedians, souped-up trucks and tractors, and lots of music by local bands and musicians.

“We really didn’t market it,” Bender said. “All we did was Facebook. We had a good turnout. It was busy. The rest of the town loved it. At the town café, it was their biggest weekend.”

Looking forward, Bender said, “Next year, it will be even better. I want to keep it all original and local. Now we’re putting an outdoor stage in. We want Robinson to become a local live-music hub.”

No More Surprises?

The wrangle between Rugby and Robinson has lingered for three years.

Meanwhile, with the help of an attorney, a lot of research and presentation of evidence to the trademark office that Rugby has a “continuous historical claim” to the title, Rugby enjoyed a huge civic sigh of relief when it regained its registration for the “Geographical Center of North America” on August 22, 2017—well, almost.

Robinson is still listed as the “Geographical Center of North America” in the trademark register. And Rugby was able to claim the “Rugby Geographical Center of North America Rugby ND” trademark.

“They couldn’t register ours. What they did was put ‘Rugby’ on either end of the trademark,” Bender said. “Who cares? Let them have that. That’s what finally became official. We didn’t challenge it. We could have, but we didn’t.”

Bender is unabashed by the whole affair.

“I think a lot of people get the humor involved in it, especially on our end,” he said. “Some people don’t care. Some didn’t like it. Depends on where their farm is, if they deal with people from Rugby. They don’t like to step on anyone’s toes.”

Others, though, placed big decals of Robinson’s slogan on the sides of their equipment and buy the “Geographical Center of North America Hanson’s Bar, Robinson, ND” T-shirts that Bender has for sale at the bar.

Bender doesn’t break much of a sweat about reactions to the whole kerfuffle. Instead, he comes across as, while perhaps not exactly a prairie agent provocateur, a guy who doesn’t mind tossing a pebble at a hornet’s nest, just to see what happens.

Bender, who is also Robinson’s mayor, even issued a tongue-in-cheek challenge to the mayor of Rugby to a boxing match to decide the matter, which was ignored.

Perhaps a rugby match—not that the game has ever been played in Rugby—would have been more appealing.

But in the end, Bender said, “We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun.”

Back in Rugby, an automatic update has been set up to register its altered title before it expires—and to avoid another unwelcome surprise.

Radio Silence

In 2015, Peter Rogerson, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Geography at the State University of New York at Buffalo, published a paper titled “A New Method for Finding Geographic Centers, with Application to U.S. States” in the Professional Geographer, in which he developed a more precise methodology for determining the center of geographic regions. Combining azimuthal and equidistant projections—which more accurately calculate distances between points on the surface of irregular, three-dimensional objects, such as a state or continent, projected onto two-dimensional maps—Rogerson determined that the geographic center of North America is in Center, North Dakota.

There really weren’t any real conversations between people in Robinson and Rugby, as far as Koenig, who represents the Rugby Chamber of Commerce, knows. This wasn’t surprising to those who understand the North Dakota instinct for hunkering down to avoid conflict.

“I’ve never even driven through Robinson,” Koenig said. “Honestly,
some Rugby folks have driven through the town, just to see the bar. Just drove by it.”

Bender said he reached out to Rugby residents, just to receive “radio silence.” His take was, “I think Rugby is happy about it. They haven’t had
this much press about it for decades. If there are hard feelings on their
part, we haven’t heard about it.”

Bender acknowledged that keeping the buzz alive has its challenges. “Winters are tough,” Bender acknowledged. “In the fall, there are a lot of hunters. I bring in microbrews in the summer, and we have an open mike night once a month. We want to have one really good event a month. It’s all about the events. We are doing things other bars aren’t doing.”

Hanson’s Bar is open just three days a week, and, when Bender isn’t there since he also works as a construction contractor, another bartender serves up his customers’ favorites—Bud Lite and Busch Lite, which, respectively, are the first and ninth most popular beers nationwide. Apparently, hops and yeast are not affected by geographical controversies.

The Center of Quirk

So here, the saga’s second unthinkable emerges. Apparently, once the “Center” title seemed like it was up for grabs and garnered nationwide publicity, recalculating the geographical center of North America became an irresistible challenge.

In 2015, Peter Rogerson, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Geography at the State University of New York at Buffalo, published a paper titled “A New Method for Finding Geographic Centers, with Application to U.S. States” in the Professional Geographer, in which he developed a more precise methodology for determining the center of geographic regions. Combining azimuthal and equidistant projections—which more accurately calculate distances between points on the surface of irregular, three-dimensional objects, such as a state or continent, projected onto two-dimensional maps—Rogerson determined that the geographic center of North America is in Center, North Dakota.

“Earlier this year a new player [was added] to the geographical center matter,” Bryce Berginski wrote in the Pierce County Tribune on February 21, 2017. “Using azimuthal equidistant map projections and determining final latitude and longitude, University at Buffalo (a campus of the State University of New York) geography professor Peter Rogerson determined the geographical center to be … .”

This is too deliciously serendipitous to serve up without an appetizer.

As North Dakotans say, the state’s mountain and tree removal programs were highly successful. Traveling east to west, the Red River Valley is literally flatter than a pancake. Fields of sugar beets, soybeans, corn and wheat stretch to faraway horizons. The topography starts to roll towards Jamestown, as if a still dawn lake in Fargo produces waves 90 miles west. The climate turns drier. Rolling farmland around Bismarck cedes to ranch range as the traveler approaches the shimmering, bone-dry canyons of the Badlands.

Punctuating what seems like agrarian infinity are ubiquitous grain elevators and oversized, one-of-a-kind statues, mostly of animals. Travel through the state and you will see a giant Holstein cow, a giant buffalo, a walleye, a turtle, a clutch of metal pheasants, even human figures made of immense round bales of hay. None of these gargantuan sculptures pretend to be great works of art; rather, they are straightforward exclamation points. The sort of shouting that North Dakotans are too polite to do vocally.

And behind these newish constructions are the older relics of generations past—rusting threshing machines dotting some slight rise in a pasture, like mummified locusts still serving to break up the horizon’s endless arc.

To find the center of this expanse and mark it horizontally—and whimsically—with a monument is like heaving an anchor into the sea. “Here” means something. And for that “here” to be the center of what lies beyond in the New World, which most residents settled in only a few generations ago, carries the incalculable weight of specificity.

Until it moves, that is.

The city-slicker geography professor’s fancy math recalibrated the center of North America to be none other than Center. Yes, there is a town called Center, North Dakota, that by the quirkiest fate of the geographical muses is really the Geographical Center of North America.

Center is a small agricultural community with about 560 residents. It is located 144 miles southwest of Rugby and 90 miles west of Robinson. These three points are all within the standard 3 percent margin of error relative to North America’s 4,400-mile diameter. They form a triangle within which is what most people would call nothing—big farms and ranches and small towns—but without which, we’d all starve to death.

So what’s really at the center of the continent?

Farming.

And another sigh of relief in Rugby. Berginski’s story concluded: “[William] Weimer [Rugby native and partner at Faegre Baker Daniels law firm in Minneapolis] said regardless of what method might be the most scientifically sound, ‘by long ago staking its right to the mark based on the 1931 study’ the Chamber ‘has rights in the trademark that can’t be overcome by alternative calculations.’”

It’s all a bit off-center. 