Bill Bender on Center Fest, the geographical shift and Hanson’s Bar
Photo by Sabrina Hornung
The city of Robinson is nestled within the sprawling drift prairie of central North Dakota, with a population of close to 40. Though it’s a hunter’s paradise, the wildlife ascending the town this weekend won’t be their typical deer or waterfowl.
The first annual Center Fest will be taking place in Robinson this weekend. A celebration of North Dakota art, music, and the acquisition of the Geographical Center of North America trademark.
Activities will include a pop-up art show courtesy of Wandering Ghost, Fargo’s favorite pop-up art gallery; music from Wild Hands, Eric Kerr, Northern Light, Mr. Meaner, The Knotties, Slippy McGee, Lost Horses, and DJ Morplay Katana.
There will also be stand-up comedy courtesy of Mik Throntveit, Nathan Fulsebakke, Kendall Kehres, Jenni Lou Russi and Aimee Klein. As well as fire performances by Minot based fire troupe Full moon fire club.
Bill Bender, the mayor of Robinson, is the man behind the Geographical Center trademark shift.
High Plains Reader: How did Robinson -- especially Hanson's Bar -- come to be the Geographical Center of North America?
Bill Bender: Hard science by dedicated, enthusiastic, and moderately inebriated people -- myself, Victor Backman, and Jeff Whitman - determined that the GC of North America was actually directly under Hanson’s Bar. After that, I had no choice but to register the trademark “Geographical Center of North America,” and also have an annual kickass festival called Center Fest.
HPR: What kind of backlash have you received from the city of Rugby?
BB: Other than a snarky letter from a Rugby attorney that we’ve completely ignored and cut up and used as beer coasters, nothing to date.
HPR: How are the locals reacting to "The Shift”?
BB: There were some grumblings at first, possibly to do with the whole rural North Dakota not wanting to piss off your neighbors thing, but once they realized we were serious and this wasn’t going away, they’ve embraced it wholeheartedly for the most part.
HPR: You've gotten nationwide attention for the trademark shift from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and various other publications. Did you ever think that would happen? What other kinds of press have you gotten?
BB: We were never really sure it would get any press at all, actually. Our historical pattern is to very rarely follow through on our hare-brained, booze-fueled ideas, but once in awhile we get a base hit. Coverage has come in short bursts, but a buddy of mine says he read about it in Ireland, so that’s pretty cool.
HPR: You spoke about someone contacting you about a reality show? Could you elaborate on that a bit?
BB: Yeah, crazy. After the WSJ article came out, a dude who produces and has starred in reality shows contacted me about doing a show centered on Robinson and Hanson’s Bar, and all the unique things we’re planning. Robinson has some seriously interesting local natives. He tells me it’s still in the “ideas” stage, so we’ll see I guess.
HPR: Have you noticed an increase in bar traffic or visitors to Robinson since it was named the Geographical Center?
BB: No doubt. So many that I had a North Dakota artist create a custom guest book for visitors to sign. It’s been very cool meeting people from all over the country who’ve altered road trips to swing through. And it’s very convenient for them that the Geographical Center of North America is only six feet away from a 45-foot long bar, so they can have a cold beer while visiting the landmark.
HPR: What kind of a crowd are you anticipating for Center Fest?
BB: Very eclectic, I hope. As for numbers, I honestly have no idea what to expect. I hope we have enough beer, I hope people will enjoy Robinson, and I hope they’ll come back year after year, because the plan is for this thing to be bigger and better every year.
HPR: You've been working like a madman making sure the bar is in tip-top shape, can you tell us about the improvements?
BB: Sadly, I work in short bursts, but I expect to be finished by show time. There are many things I wanted to get done for this year’s fest, that will have to wait: giant trebuchet, blowing up a truck, etcetera. But I’ve added a permanent indoor stage, and an enclosed outdoor stage and beer garden. It’s an 81-year-old building, so it’s been challenging at times.
HPR: Can you tell us about some of your plans to make Hanson's Bar a live music destination?
BB: I’m a lover of live music and an admirer of musicians, of all artists really. My goal is to have live music as much as possible, hosting regional bands, comedians, art shows, and anything else that sounds unique and interesting. I’d like Hanson’s Bar and Robinson to be a sort of oasis of art, musical and otherwise.
HPR: You're a South High graduate. How did you find yourself in Robinson?
BB: One of my best friends, Jeff Whitman, grew up about a mile from here, so when I met him early in college, we’d come out quite often to spend time at Hanson’s Bar. We were doing that so often that when I found a little shack for sale in town, I bought it so we could sleep on couches instead of floors. I’m a remodeling contractor, and when the oil boom was going big I was getting a lot of work in Bismarck, so I’d stay here and commute. I enjoyed living here more and more, so here I am.
HPR: Have you heard anything else from the mayor of Rugby in regard to the charity boxing match that you challenged him to?
BB: He agreed to it at the very beginning via the press, but my guess is he’s been put on a short leash by their heavy-hitter legal team since then, because it’s been radio silence from Rugby city officials.
HPR: What do you think the most compelling part of Hanson's bar is?
BB: I think it’s history and ambiance. It was opened in 1936 by Ernie Hanson, and taken over in 1967 by his son Danny Hanson, who changed the name to Hanson’s. When we travel, my friends and I are drawn to the oldest, most original bars in town, and I like to think that if Hanson’s Bar were in a town we’d travel to, we’d be drawn to it and spend entire days drinking there. Which we’ve done at Hanson’s dozens of times, come to think of it.
HPR: As mayor and resident, what do you think the most compelling part of Robinson is?
BB: Has to be the people. Robinson and the surrounding countryside natives are proud of their hometown, and I am too. Keeping these small, rural towns from dying can be a challenge without some effort. Fortunately, Robinson’s Lions Club, City Council, Senior Center, Volunteer Fire Department, and residents realize this, and are all in to try to keep Robinson on the map with activities and events. Hopefully Center Fest helps in this regard.
IF YOU GO
August 11 at noon to August 12 at midnight
Hanson’s Bar, 123 Main Street, Robinson, N.D.
Robinson is 63 miles NW of Jamestown. Take U.S. Highway 52 north and turn left just the other side of the town of Pingree, on N.D. Highway 36.
by C.S. Hagen
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