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Orear: How a town lost its hook

What's Going On

Towns want a hook.

Call it a draw, a gimmick, an attraction. Whatever it is, towns want something though that distinguishes it. Something that makes it unique. And most importantly, something that will bring visitors to town to help separate them from their out-of-town dollars, be it on essentials or some trinket related to the hook, draw, gimmick, or attraction.

Some towns are lucky enough to have mother nature provide them with their hook in the form of a geographic feature like a large body of water, a mountain, a canyon, a geyser, hot springs, or a waterfall. Some towns had history provide their hook such as a Civil War battlefield, a fort, or a shoot-out with a famous gang of outlaws. Others tout some famous alumni, claiming to be the birthplace or hometown of someone with a following.

But a lot of towns aren’t so lucky to have that kind of hook handed to them, so they dig a little deeper and rely on some creativity.

For example, my wife’s hometown of Alliance, Neb., has a replica of the famed Stonehenge, but made out of junk cars. They call it Carhenge, of course.

I started my newspaper career in a town that bills itself as the place where sliced bread was invented.

There’s Mitchell, South Dakota with the building made of corn called, not so creatively, the Corn Palace.

I lived near Stanton, Iowa, with the world’s largest coffee pot that at one time served as the town’s water tower. And 10 miles away, tourists come from all over the country to tour a home where a little over 100 years ago, eight people (including six children) were killed with an axe in what remains as Iowa’s largest unsolved murder.

And then there’s Rugby, North Dakota. They had a hook, but they may have somehow … lost it.

How do you lose a hook? Well, in this instance, it’s part lazy mixed with a little sneaky and a dash of opportunism.

It was a unique combination of history and geographical features that provided Rugby, a town just south of the Canadian border, with its hook way back in 1931.

The U.S. Geological Survey released a report identifying a location near Rugby as North America’s geographical center.

Officials from the nearby town, which now has a population of nearly 3,000, seized on the announcement and built a 21-foot stone monument allegedly marking “the spot,” while conveniently ignoring the fact the actual location was, again, outside of the city limits.

Regardless, the same folks who will drive X number of miles to see the largest ball of yarn, collection of Cabbage Patch Dolls, or the tree where Walt Disney used to daydream will also drive to the middle of North America to have their picture taken next to a pile of rocks.

The local town would benefit from the extra gasoline and food sales, and the t-shirts/hats boasting the town’s location oddity.

At least, they used to benefit from it. Until Bill Bender came along.

According to an article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Bender is the mayor of a town 80 miles to the south, Robinson, population 37.

Bender is not only the small town’s mayor, but the co-owner of its lone bar, Hanson’s.

According to the Journal article, late one night at Hanson’s “after a few hours of drinking Grain Belt beers” (woo-hoo New Ulm!) Bender and a group of friends started debating Rugby’s claim and informally declared the bar the geographical center of North America.

Ignoring the influence of some of Schell’s finest, questioning the claim does have merit.

“There are so many different ways that the geographic center could be calculated,” a U.S. Geological Survey geologist was quoted in the Journal. “Do we include all the islands off-shore, do we include water? It’s fraught with procedural questions.”

Disregarding the accuracy of the claim, Bender wasn’t done with his antagonism. In fact, a few weeks after the Grain Belt-inspired dialogue, the bar owner discovered something interesting: the trademark on the phrase “Geographical Center of North America” had expired … in 2009.

So after sending $375 and a completed application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Bender officially relocated the geographical center of North America.

His one-room bar that boasts the designation has a new logo and t-shirts and Bender has started work on organizing a festival and a monument.

Rugby residents, and especially those with businesses, are dumbfounded they lost their gimmick.

“I still can’t believe that happened,” said a café owner who also sells geographical center shirts, hats, mugs and mints. “This guy who got it, he must have really been on top of things. And someone here must not have been keeping on top of things. We’re hoping to get it back.”

The town has hired an attorney, but again, Bender followed all the rules and didn’t do anything wrong. He just secured an expired trademark.

And for the record, he said he’d be willing to sell it back … for the right amount of money.

But for now … Rugby, North Dakota has no hook. No gimmick. No draw.

They are a town without an identity.

All because of an expired trademark.

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Gregory Orear is the publisher of The Journal. His award-winning weekly column, What’s Going On, has been published in four newspapers in three states for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at gorear@nujournal.com.

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