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Belle Fourche: Center of Nation, History, Recreation

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BELLE FOURCHE, S.D. (3/10/09) – In downtown Belle Fourche there’s a monument marking the area’s distinction as the geographic center of the United States.  But it’s also the area’s rich Western history and recreational opportunities that draw visitors to this city on the northern edge of the Black Hills.

Belle Fourche, French for “beautiful fork,” received its name from the convergence of the Redwater and Belle Fourche rivers just east of town. After the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1876 had lost some of its luster, farmers and ranchers began taking advantage of the fertile land just north of the Black Hills, which soon became a coveted site for raising huge herds of Texas and Kansas cattle.

Seth Bullock, famed Western figure and Deadwood’s first sheriff, established the city of Belle Fourche in 1891 after negotiating with the coming railroad to make the area a loading site for live cattle. By 1895, the city was responsible for 2,500 carloads of cattle per month during the peak season. At that point Belle Fourche was the largest livestock shipping point in the world.

Today, the Belle Fourche area remains an important Western livestock and wool producer. In addition, farmers in the nearby Belle Fourche Irrigation District raise a variety of grain crops. Mines west of Belle Fourche are one of the world’s few sources of bentonite, a type of absorbent clay used in everything from oil drilling to cosmetics. The wool-shipping warehouses at Belle Fourche are the largest in the United States.

The city is a large trading hub in the tri-state area of South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana for cattle ranchers, sheep ranchers, farmers and miners, said Teresa Schanzenbach, executive director of the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce.

The city’s famous Black Hills Roundup Rodeo, in its 90th year, is a Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association event featuring top cowboys from North America, Canada and Australia.  This has included local heroes Mark and Marvin Garrett, world champion bareback and bronc saddleback riders.  This yearly event is also marked by a five-day carnival, fireworks and a 200-float parade over the Fourth of July weekend.

Other Belle Fourche events include the Seth Bullock Riverfest Days (July 31-Aug. 1), the South Dakota State High School Rodeo Finals (June 24-28) and the annual winter Parade of Lights (Dec. 3). Belle Fourche was the first city in the Black Hills to put on a Parade of Lights event.

Belle Fourche also has a number of attractions including the Tri-State Museum, which documents the history of the area, and the Johnny Spalding Cabin, home of one of the first settlers in the area. Orman Dam, on the Belle Fourche River nine miles east of Belle Fourche, is a major recreation area for boaters and fishermen in western South Dakota.

Belle Fourche is proud to claim the title of geographic center of the nation. The site was determined by the calculations of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Environmental Science Services Administration, and the National Coast & Geodetic Survey.

When Hawaii and Alaska joined the United States, the site near Belle Fourche became the geographic center of the nation – an equal number of U.S. square miles lie to the north and the south, and an equal number to the east and the west.  

People are free to visit the area marked by a sign and a U.S. flag located approximately 20 miles north of the city. In addition, a monument at the city of Belle Fourche marks the city’s designation as the Center of the Nation.

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