Demise of town no longer centre of attention
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A mile west along the K-191 highway you come to a trunca- ted stone pyramid and a pole carrying the US and Kansas flags, a one-room church, a barbecue grill and a scattering of picnic tables. It is quiet, eerily so, covered in a thick fog.
This is the centre of the United States, or at least the geographical centre of the contiguous US or continental 48 states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). In 1940, a group of engineers, helped by data from the US Coast and Geodetic Society, sought out the exact centre of the country. They found it here.
Well, not exactly here – in fact, it’s a quarter-mile west because Johnny Grieb, a stubborn Kansas farmer, did not want bus-loads of tourists coming and disturbing his hogs. A sign purporting to mark the country’s geographical centre was erected on April 25th, 1940, on the near- pyramid by the local “Hub Club”, away from Grieb’s pigs.
Near the centre of everything is the town of Lebanon, Kansas, where there is next to nothing. There’s a post office, a grocery store, a beauty store and a gun store. Connie Herndon doesn’t allow guns in her office, though; there are signs saying so out front.
As city clerk, she collects the town’s water, sewer and landfill rates, and takes minutes of local meetings. “This town is mainly senior citizens,” she says.
So how does it feel being at the centre of everything? “It’s pretty laid back,” says Debbie Whitten, who is in charge of the post office, a few doors down from Herndon’s office.
Lebanon used to be a very prosperous town, she says, with lots of tourists and well- off farmers, but those days are gone. Tourists used to visit the hotel and coffee shop next to what locals call “the centre”, but the hotel was bought by a hunter from Texas who travels up to shoot deer and pheasant.
“Farms aren’t the small family farms like they used to be; they were bought up by larger farms and the kids have moved away because there are no jobs,” she says.
The local farms haven’t been helped by a drought affecting the local wheat and corn crops for the past two years. “I can’t even tell you the last time it rained,” says Whitten.
The population of Lebanon has been falling steadily over the last two decades, from 364 in 1990 to 303 at the turn of the century. It stands at about 165 today, says Herndon.