Marathon County town is not the cen­ter of what we think it is

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Milwaukee Wisconsin - Keith Uh­lig

PONIATOWSKI – Since 1969 a spot in a soy­bean field about a half mile north­west of this teeny town has been cel­e­brated for be­ing, as a wooden sign once pro­claimed in solemn cap­i­tal let­ters, “THE EX­ACT CEN­TER OF THE NORTH­ERN HALF OF THE WESTERN HEMI­SPHERE.”

It is the point at which the 90th merid­ian of lon­gi­tude in­ter­sects the 45th par­al­lel of lat­i­tude. It’s in north­ern Marathon County about 20 miles west of Wausau, and is, ac­cord­ing to that old sign, “halfway be­tween the North Pole and the Equa­tor” and a “quar­ter of the way around the Earth from Greenwich, Eng­land.”

It’s one of my fa­vorite places on the planet, and I’ve been vis­it­ing it ever since I got my driver’s li­cense as a 16year-old liv­ing in nearby Colby. I love the fact that when I am at the marker, I know where I am sit­u­ated on this planet of 197 mil­lion square miles. It is com­fort­ing for some­one fre­quently adrift both phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally to know he is stand­ing at “THE EX­ACT CEN­TER OF THE NORTH­ERN HALF OF THE WESTERN HEMI­SPHERE.”

Ex­cept ... it’s not. And here’s why.

In late Septem­ber I was tagged in a Face­book post from Keith Mont­gomery, a ge­ol­o­gist and ge­og­ra­pher by train­ing and now a strate­gic plan­ner for the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Stevens Point’s Aca­demic Af­fairs of­fice.

The post linked to an on­line copy of the pa­per done in the early 1990s by a UW-La Crosse physics pro­fes­sor, Frank E. Bar­more.

Cheek­ily ti­tled, “The Earth isn’t Flat. And It isn’t Round Ei­ther! Some Sig­nif­i­cant and Lit­tle Known Ef­fects of the Earth’s El­lip­soidal Shape,” the pa­per sys­tem­at­i­cally and con­vinc­ingly ex­plains why the Poniatowski marker isn’t

what we think it is.

The gist of the pa­per is this: The geo­graphic point near Poniatowski is in­deed where the 45th lat­i­tude and 90th merid­ian cross.

And the Poniatowski point would be the phys­i­cal cen­ter of the north­ern half of the western hemi­sphere if the earth was round like a golf ball.

But it isn’t. It’s more like an orange that’s slightly squashed, bulging at the mid­dle (many of us can re­late).

Be­cause our planet has that el­lip­soidal shape, rather than a per­fect sphere, the phys­i­cal place halfway be­tween the equa­tor and the North Pole is shifted, Bar­more writes.

That place is about 10 miles to the north, in Lin­coln County.

I’m not the only one at­tracted to the 45/90 spot. It lures peo­ple from all over the world. As­tronomers from the U.S. Naval Ob­ser­va­tory trekked there in 1977 to make so­phis­ti­cated and tech­ni­cal time/space mea­sure­ments us­ing a star and the moon.

It’s been pro­filed by the hip­ster on­line travel site At­las Ob­scura. Fathers make the pil­grim­age with sons, seek­ing bond­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and en­light­en­ment.

Peo­ple can join the 4590 Club by sign­ing a four­inch thick binder at the Wausau/Cen­tral Wis­con­sin Con­ven­tion and Visi­tors Bureau, and get a com­mem­o­ra­tive coin.

That’s all thanks to the work of Poniatowski na­tive, World War II vet­eran, tav­ern owner, Marathon County Board mem­ber and racon­teur John Gesicki.

Gesicki dis­cov­ered, al­most pre­cisely, where the two lines in­ter­sected.

Ac­cord­ing to a story I found from the June 2, 1978, is­sue of the news­pa­per Agri-View, it took Gesicki five years to de­ter­mine the noted geo­graph­i­cal cross­ing.

He used a va­ri­ety of sources to make the de­ter­mi­na­tion, in­clud­ing scour­ing his­tor­i­cal maps. When he pin­pointed the spot, it was con­firmed by a U.S. De­part­ment of In­te­rior sur­vey team.

Once the place was de­ter­mined, Gesicki lob­bied suc­cess­fully to create a small park at there in 1969, com­plete with the wooden in­for­ma­tional sign.

That sign was re­moved and new ones erected in 2017 when the park was ren­o­vated, but they still iden­tify the place as “the ex­act cen­ter of the North­west Hemi­sphere.”

(The new signs are less stri­dent; they dropped the all-caps font.)

Gesicki, who died in 1995, also formed the 4590 Club, and started the binder.

This all un­der­scores just how tricky and com­pli­cated things be­come when you start to scru­ti­nize what seems like a sim­ple fact.

And if any­thing, learn­ing it all has deep­ened my ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the 45-90 spot.

If I were in charge, I would put an as­ter­isk on the boards, and ex­plain a bit about Bar­more’s find­ings. Af­ter all, don’t you have to love a guy so de­voted to pre­ci­sion and the truth?


John Gesicki was a driv­ing force in dis­cov­er­ing the spot where the90th merid­ian bi­sects the 45th par­al­lel in 1969. He’s shown hereat the spot in 1988. Gesicki diedin 1995.


It’s not quite the ex­act cen­ter, ac­cord­ing to Frank Bar­more, a re­tired physics pro­fes­sor from the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-La Crosse.

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