Placid park marks center

Umstead bordered by bustle

Staff WritersApril 9, 2002 

Susan Balfour knows the precise center of the Triangle: "There's often a lot of manure there." A woodsy trail potholed with horse droppings -- not a new mall or look-alike subdivision -- lies at the very center of the Triangle's population, new census data show. Each Wednesday after work, Balfour and her mountain-biking buddies pedal past the spot in western Raleigh's William B. Umstead State Park. The cross hairs land on the Reedy Creek Road bridle trail, just past the entrance gate, before the first bend to the left.

This business of a population center is something dreamed up by demographers, the people who play with numbers for a living.

Imagine laying out the Triangle's population on a piece of paper -- all six counties: Wake, Durham, Orange, Johnston, Chatham and Franklin. Now balance that paper on a pin. The point where it balances perfectly is the center of population.

This nifty piece of information serves little practical purpose other than to chart broad shifts in population. Every 10 years, after the national census, a new map is dragged out showing that the United States' population center has moved slightly more westward. In 2000, it fell in Phelps County, Mo. In 1800, it was in Baltimore.

Not much change, though, since 1990 in the population centers for the Triangle, for any of its six counties or for the state as a whole. A few blocks, or a short country drive, at most.

How ironic that the population center of the fast-paced

Triangle is nestled in a 5,400-acre preserve of pine trees peopled by snakes, birds and bunnies, even if it's just minutes from the bustle of the Beltline.

"It's kind of neat that Umstead is the center: It's such a wonderful place," said Robin Crumpton of Cary, who bikes with Balfour and friends. "It's nice to have a big park in the middle where you can get away from everything."

For North Carolina, the center falls in Randolph County just southeast of Asheboro, in the rambling crossroads community of Erect.

Locals tell two stories of how Erect came to be the name of a land of cow pastures and country houses, where the main landmark, the Teague Store, sells the only gas around for seven or eight miles. Both versions have to do with picking a name to go with a new post office back in the 1870s.

One goes that after postal officials rejected two proposed names because they were already taken, C.M. Tysor, proprietor of a local country store, opened the dictionary to a random page and plunked down a finger. It landed on "erect," and the rest is history.

The other story is that Tysor proposed Erect to compliment the good posture of a neighbor, Tom Bray.

"When you get down to it," says Charles Deaton, Tysor's great-grandson, "whichever name it was, it was the same man who named it."

Closer to home, Durham's population ground zero is the Apple Realty office on Duke Street downtown. At 5 p.m Tuesday, a steady stream of renters drove up to stuff their monthly checks in a drop box to avoid a late fee.

"If there's a lot of rules and deadlines in the center of Durham, what does that say for the rest of the county?" said Rachel Marsh, 22, a rising senior at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who brought by her rent check.

Wake County's population center is Wolfpack territory.

Outside the small brick house at 909 Gardner St., off Wade Avenue, flies a bright red N.C. State University banner. Inside, a mounted deer head wears a construction hard hat emblazoned with the NCSU logo.

Shelton Griffin, a 23-year-old NCSU student who lives there, puzzled over the meaning of life in the vortex of Wake County over cold cans of beers with a couple of buddies.

One of them, Jim Goodwin, an NCSU business student, struck on an angle to exploit.

"Hey," he said, "maybe that would make a good pickup line."

Staff writer Ned Glascock can be reached at 829-4557 or nedg@newsobserver.com

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