I-8 roadside attraction Center of the World west of Yuma sparks interest
FELICITY, CA (3TV/CBS 5) - Felicity, California, is a tiny town with a population of 14 people. It’s only a few miles west of the Arizona border along Interstate 8, and it’s home to the official Center of the World.
Its purpose and why it was established there is a mystery to some, but to those who get a chance to visit, leave with a better understanding of how it came to be. Jacques-Andre Istel says many people find the town peaceful. A serene desert surrounds it. On a hilltop, a church can be seen. There are also monuments like a pyramid that is marked as the center of the world and a captivating 25-foot spiral staircase that is actually from the Eiffel Tower.
“I came to America as an immigrant from France as a boy,” Istel said. For more than 30 years, he’s dedicated his life to establishing the center of the world. “What we have been doing for 32 years is engraving the history of humanity in granite for future generations.”
After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and fighting in the Korean War, Istel and a couple of his buddies bought 3,000 acres of land in the 1950s. “I came back with four other people putting in money together,” he said. It was located in California, just 12 miles west of Yuma. They heard it was good land and great for farming. Nothing ever came of it, and over the years, Istel became the sole owner of the land. “Over the years, a friend would come to me and ask me to buy them out,” he said.
“I was trained to be a banker. I hated it. Then came the Korean War, and I started a parachute company and ran that for 28 years. When I sold it, I came to the desert not knowing what we were going to do,” says Istel. He established the town Felicity in 1986, naming it after his wife Felicia. “We had just the bare desert. I thought it would be fun to have a big title,” Istel said. He thought the center of the world sounded grand.
He created a children’s book about dragons. The tale designates Felicity as the center of the world. He said nobody could dispute a children’s book claiming the center of the world. “Supervisors of the Imperial County liked the book,” Istel explains. Imperial County officially recognized Felicity and the pyramid monument built there as the center of the world. But how it became a museum filled with writings of history began with the Center of the World’s second monument.
“I feel very strongly about the Marines, which are like a family,” Istel said. He wanted to honor the Marines. “We engraved a two-panel brief history of the Korean War. The names of the over four thousand marines who died in Korea are engraved,” he said.
Over time, he added more monuments highlighting the early history of Yuma and Imperial counties, but he didn’t stop there. “I consider myself a half-baked historian,” he says. On the granite panels, you’ll find history from across the world. From deadly wars and interesting facts to famous quotes he finds amusing.
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Outside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. My wife said I shouldn’t put it up, but I thought it was funny,” he said. Most importantly, he wants people to leave the Center of the World with a lighted spark. “That’s the purpose of this museum. It’s to make people want to learn more and open a book,” he said.
At 94 years old, Istel continues learning and working. He said he’s currently working on more granite panels to add to the museum.
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