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Nailing down the heart of Montana

 

Everyone in Lewistown, Mont., used to know that the heart of the state was under Mrs. Dockery's kitchen sink. The prairie town's claim to host Montana's geographic center has been unabashedly celebrated, debated and defended since 1912.

That was the year the Akins family moved into their stately home, newly built atop a hill on Main Street. Shortly afterward, or so the story goes, Grandma Akins answered a knock at the back door, and there she found a group of men who said they were members of a federal "Coast and Geodetic" survey. They had remarkable news: The exact center of Montana was under her kitchen sink.

In 1927, Mr. and Mrs. Akins gave the house to their daughter and son-in-law, Bohnda and Ray Dockery Sr. Dockery’s son then hung a little copper plaque above the kitchen sink stating that it sat right over the heart of Montana.

John Foster, 68, a lifelong Lewistown resident and historian, says his mother was washing dishes in their kitchen sink when she told him about the phenomenon. "She said you could look down the drain of Mrs. Dockery's sink and see the exact center of Montana."

Foster believes that a “colorful old boot” named Joe Montgomery instigated the story. Montgomery, who lived to 107, fancied himself Lewistown's political and weather forecaster. "Joe liked to mix with moneyed people and could have got in with them by saying he knew the house sat atop the center of the state," Foster theorizes.

In 1977, members of the First Christian Church bought the Dockery house, sink and all, and converted it into a parsonage. Then came a rival to the Dockery legend: In 1982, pickaxes stabbed the ground outside a convention center where an expansion project was under way. The contractor's axe struck a large rock, and scratched into it was an outline of Montana with an X marking the center. A hollow buffalo horn was also unearthed, and tucked inside it was a note written on linen parchment and dated Feb. 12, 1912: "Good Friend Forbear To Disturb the Stone entomed (sic) in here. Blessed are they Who accept the Mark And to Hell with those Who would move this Rock." W.S.

Who was W.S.? Did old-timers remember such a person? Well, mysterious W.S. was likely Will Stafford, a pioneer surveyor for the Jawbone Railroad, whose rails reached Lewistown in 1903. Some residents rallied around W.S., but others, like old-timer Mary Jean Golden, 71, tell a different story. In her book, Nailing Down Montana, she asserts: "One day a group of guys building an addition to the Yogo Inn were sitting around drinking coffee. The next day they found a buffalo horn with what was almost certainly a note written by Lewis and Clark: 'When Montana becomes a state, this is the center.’"

By 1987, First Christian Church members no longer thought the heart of Montana was under their parsonage. So they tore down the place, sink and all.

Nor was it likely under the Yogo Inn. In the 1990s, U.S. Geological Survey crews poked around Lewistown, crunching and calculating numbers. They declared that Montana's center was actually 11 miles west of town.

Most recently, in 2006, Gerry Daumiller, a Montana geographic information specialist in Helena, put the center in a Hutterite colony cow pasture mine miles west of Lewistown. Explains Daumiller, "There are many ways to calculate the center of Montana. The method I settled on gives the center of balance of Montana's boundary, and I used boundary coordinates in the Montana State Plane Coordinate system of 1983."

Still, folks at the Yogo Inn won't be swayed. Sales director Sharon Farrar says, "We are sticking with that 1912 survey." As for Lewistown's old-timers, they won't buy into it, either. They grumble over coffee at the Empire Café and point to the hill where the Dockery house once stood.

Still, wherever the heart of Montana is, it seems it’s no longer in Lewistown. Says Foster: "Take it for what it is. You never want to put myths to rest." As for writer Golden, she blames some wily "state tectonics": Montana's heart must have somehow stretched, slid or tunneled its way out from under Mrs. Dockery's kitchen sink and over to a Hutterite colony cow pasture.

Cathy Moser is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer in central Montana’s Judith Mountains.