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