9 Monumental Facts About Chimney Rock

RobertWaltman/iStock via Getty Images
RobertWaltman/iStock via Getty Images

Standing around 325 feet tall from peak to base, Chimney Rock looms like a lighthouse on the Great Plains. One of the most cherished landmarks in the Nebraska panhandle, it greeted thousands of emigrants who risked their lives to travel westward. Oh, and it also graced one of the most popular video games of all time. Load up your wagon with more facts about Chimney Rock.

1. Chimney Rock is a reminder of America’s volcanic past.

Chimney Rock is a hoodoo, a vertical pile of rock layers (or strata). The oldest of these layers is roughly 34 million years old, while the youngest was laid down 23 million years ago. Volcanic ash was a key component in many of the strata. About 37 million years ago, a series of volcanoes began to emerge in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. Ashy clouds unleashed by their eruptions covered the Great Plains, blending with sands, silts, and clays. After several million years, the surface of the plains became elevated. Erosion then broke down the strata, revealing Chimney Rock's current shape. A hard sandstone cap at the summit could be shielding the softer, more vulnerable layers below from eroding as rapidly as they otherwise might.

2. One of Chimney Rock’s Native American names translates to “elk penis.”

That particular name, used by the Lakota Sioux, wasn’t popular with early white settlers or explorers, who instead called it “Elk Peak,” “Elk Brick,” “Nose Mountain,” and “The Chimney.” Although written descriptions of this formation date all the way back to 1830, the “Chimney Rock” moniker didn’t appear in print until 1842.

3. Travelers on the Oregon Trail used Chimney Rock as a marker.

Over 2000 miles in length, the historic Oregon Trail ran all the way from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest. It’s been estimated that as many as 500,000 travelers took this arduous route (and similar trails) during the 19th century. For many of them, seeing Chimney Rock was cause for celebration because it meant that the first (and easiest) third of their hard journey was just about over. Accordingly, when historian Merrill Mattes reviewed 300 journal entries written by pioneers on the Oregon Trail, she found more references to Chimney Rock than to any other landmark.

4. The California and Mormon Trails passed by Chimney Rock, too.

Popularized during the Gold Rush of the 1840s and 1850s, the California Trail covered much of the same ground as the better-known Oregon Trail. So did the Mormon Trail, a 1300-mile pathway that linked Nauvoo, Illinois, to Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Both routes came within sight of Chimney Rock.

5. Pioneers used to carve their names on Chimney Rock.

“I saw hundreds of names out in the rock, some at a dizzying height,” wrote one traveler in 1850. “I wrote mine above all except two and theirs were about 8 feet higher than mine.” Weathering and erosion have long since destroyed most of this graffiti, although a few monogram-covered rock samples have been removed from the site and preserved for posterity.

6. Chimney Rock was designated a National Historic Site on August 9, 1956.

To see it in person, and learn more about the rich history of this region, pop into the Ethel and Christopher J. Abbott Visitor’s Center in Bayard, Nebraska. There’s a viewing area where you can enjoy the rocky tower in all its glory, as well as an interactive museum complete with a miniature Chimney Rock ring-toss game.

7. Chimney Rock is featured on the Nebraska state quarter.

In 1999, the United States Mint kicked off the 50 States Quarters Program. Hoping to promote coin-collecting, the agency released a series of limited-edition commemorative quarters whose flipsides featured artistic tributes to each U.S. state. Nebraska’s quarter, released in 2006, shows a covered wagon driving past Chimney Rock. Hand-picked by then-governor Dave Heineman, the design was chosen over a renderings of the state capitol in Lincoln, the human figure atop the capitol, and Ponca chief Standing Bear [PDF].

8. When Chimney Rock debuted in the Oregon Trail video game series, it beat out two neighboring attractions.

Oregon Trail was conceived by Minnesota history teacher Don Rawitsch and his roommates in 1971. But the earliest editions didn’t include any of the geographical landmarks that actual settlers would have seen along the Oregon Trail. Enter Philip Bouchard, a designer who was tasked with upgrading the game for Apple II in 1984. To improve the aesthetics, he threw in some real-life natural wonders. “Chimney Rock was one of the most famous of all, and therefore an obligatory inclusion,” Bouchard told the Scottsbluff Star Herald in 2019. Wanting to space out the game’s landmarks, he omitted two equally impressive formations that greeted travelers on the Oregon Trail: Scotts Bluff and Courthouse Rock. Since they’re both located in western Nebraska, Bouchard felt they were “too close to Chimney Rock for me to include them in the game.”

9. Chimney Rock is still eroding today.

People have been questioning the rock’s stability for the better part of two centuries. “I am very sure it cannot stand many years before large flakes will slide to the ground if all does not come down in a general crash,” wrote emigrant Israel F. Hale in 1849. More than 150 years later, in the early 2000s, some critics said Chimney Rock didn’t belong on Nebraska’s state quarter because it’s eroding. The precise rate of erosion has never been determined—so it’s hard to know how much longer Chimney Rock will exist. But despite 15 decades of doubt about its future, this icon of the West still stands.

9 Royally Interesting Facts About King Cake

iStock
iStock

It’s Carnival season, and that means bakeries throughout New Orleans are whipping up those colorful creations known as King Cakes. And while today it’s primarily associated with Big Easy revelry, the King Cake has a long and checkered history that reaches back through the centuries. Here are a few facts about its origins, its history in America, and how exactly that plastic baby got in there.

1. The King Cake is believed to have Pagan origins.

The king cake is widely associated with the Christian festival of the Epiphany, which celebrates the three kings’ visit to the Christ child on January 6. Some historians, however, believe the cake dates back to Roman times, and specifically to the winter festival of Saturnalia. Bakers would put a fava bean—which back then was used for voting, and had spiritual significance—inside the cake, and whoever discovered it would be considered king for a day. Drinking and mayhem abounded. In the Middle Ages, Christian followers in France took up the ritual, replacing the fava bean with a porcelain replica engraved with a face.

2. The King Cake stirred up controversy during the French Revolution.

To bring the pastry into the Christian tradition, bakers got rid of the bean and replaced it with a crowned king’s head to symbolize the three kings who visited baby Jesus. Church officials approved of the change, though the issue became quite thorny in late 18th century France, when a disembodied king’s head was seen as provocation. In 1794, the mayor of Paris called on the “criminal patissiers” to end their “filthy orgies.” After they failed to comply, the mayor simply renamed the cake the “Gateau de Sans-Culottes,” after the lower-class sans-culottes revolutionaries.

3. The King Cake determined the early kings and queens of Mardi Gras.


A Mardi Gras King in 1952.

Two of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes (NOLA-talk for "crew," or a group that hosts major Mardi Gras events, like parades or balls) brought about the current cake tradition. The Rex Organization gave the festival its colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) in 1872, but two years earlier, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe brought out a King Cake with a gold bean hidden inside and served it up to the ladies in attendance. The finder was crowned queen of the ball. Other krewes adopted the practice as well, crowning the kings and queens by using a gold or silver bean. The practice soon expanded into households throughout New Orleans, where today the discovery of a coin, bean or baby trinket identifies the buyer of the next King Cake.

4. The King Cake's baby trinkets weren't originally intended to have religious significance.

Although today many view the baby trinkets found inside king cakes to symbolize the Christ child, that wasn’t what Donald Entringer—the owner of the renowned McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, which started the tradition—had in mind. Entringer was instead looking for something a little bit different to put in his king cakes, which had become wildly popular in the city by the mid-1900s. One story has it that Entringer found the original figurines in a French Quarter shop. Another, courtesy of New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker (via NPR’s The Salt), states that a traveling salesman with a surplus of figurines stopped by the bakery and suggested the idea. "He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,'" said Tooker.

5. Bakeries are afraid of getting sued.

What to many is an offbeat tradition is, to others, a choking hazard. It’s unclear how many consumers have sued bakeries over the plastic babies and other trinkets baked inside king cakes, but apparently it’s enough that numerous bakeries have stopped including them altogether, or at least offer it on the side. Still, some bakeries remain unfazed—like Gambino’s, whose cinnamon-infused king cake comes with the warning, "1 plastic baby baked inside."

6. The French version of the King Cake comes with a paper crown.


iStock

In France, where the flaky, less colorful (but still quite tasty) galette de rois predates its American counterpart by a few centuries, bakers often include a paper crown with their cake, just to make the “king for a day” feel extra special. The trinkets they put inside are also more varied and intricate, and include everything from cars to coins to religious figurines. Some bakeries even have their own lines of collectible trinkets.

7. There's also the Rosca de Reyes, the Bolo Rei, and the Dreikönigskuchen.


"Roscón de Reyes" by Tamorlan - Self Made (Foto Propia).

Versions of the King Cake can be found throughout Europe and Latin America. The Spanish Rosca de Reyes and the Portugese Bolo Rei are usually topped with dried fruit and nuts, while the Swiss Dreikönigskuchen has balls of sweet dough surrounding the central cake. The Greek version, known as Vasilopita, resembles a coffee cake and is often served for breakfast.

8. The King Cake is no longer just a New Orleans tradition.

From New York to California, bakeries are serving up King Cakes in the New Orleans fashion, as well as the traditional French style. On Long Island, Mara’s Homemade makes their tri-colored cakes year round, while in Los Angeles you can find a galette de rois (topped with a nifty crown, no less) at Maison Richard. There are also lots of bakeries that deliver throughout the country, many offering customizable fillings from cream cheese to chocolate to fruits and nuts.

9. The New Orleans Pelicans have a King Cake baby mascot—and it is terrifying.

Every winter you can find this monstrosity at games, local supermarkets, and in your worst nightmares.

5 Wild Facts About Mall Madness

Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The mall, home of fashion brands, bookstores, and anchor locations like Sears, was a must-visit location for Americans in the 1980s and 1990s—and especially for teenagers. Teens also played Mall Madness, a board game from Milton Bradley introduced in 1988 that tried to capture the excitement of soft pretzels and high-interest credit card shopping in one convenient tabletop game. Navigating a two-story shopping mall, the player who successfully spends all of their disposable income to acquire six items from the shopping list and return to the parking lot wins.

If you’re nostalgic for this simulated spending spree, you're in luck: Hasbro will be bringing Mall Madness back in fall 2020. Until then, check out some facts about the game’s origins.

1. Mall Madness was the subject of a little controversy.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Milton Bradley put a focus on the tween demographic. Their Dream Phone tasked young players with finding the boy of their dreams; Mall Madness, which began as an analog game but quickly added an electronic voice component, served to portray tweens as frenzied shoppers. As a result, the game drew some criticism upon release for its objective—to spend as much money as possible—and for ostensibly portraying the tweens playing as “bargain-crazy, credit-happy fashion plates,” according to Adweek. Milton Bradley public relations manager Mark Morris argued that the game taught players “how to judiciously spend their money.”

2. The original Mall Madness may not be the same one you remember.

The electronic version of Mall Madness remains the most well-known version of the game, but Milton Bradley introduced a miniature version in 1988 that was portable and took the form of an audio cassette. With the game board folded in the case, it looks like a music tape. Opened, the tri-fold board resembles the original without the three-dimensional plastic mall pieces. It was one of six games the company promoted in the cassette packaging that year.

3. Mall Madness was not the only shopping game on the market.

At the same time Mall Madness was gaining in popularity, consumers could choose from two other shopping-themed board games: Let’s Go Shopping from the Pressman Toy Corporation and Meet Me At the Mall from Tyco. Let’s Go Shopping tasks girls with completing a fashion outfit, while Meet Me At the Mall rewards the player who amasses the most items before the mall closes.

4. There was a Hannah Montana version of Mall Madness.

In the midst of Hannah Montana madness in 2008, Hasbro—which acquired Milton Bradley—released a Miley Cyrus-themed version of the game. Players control fictional Disney Channel singing sensation Hannah Montana as she shops for items. There was also A Littlest Pet Shop version of the game, with the tokens reimagined as animals.

5. Mall Madness is a collector’s item.

Because, for the moment, Hasbro no longer produces Mall Madness, a jolt of nostalgia will cost you a few dollars. The game, which originally sold for $30, can fetch $70 or more on eBay and other secondhand sites.

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