15 Things You Might Not Know About Iowa

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It may be widely thought of as a fly-over state, but there’s a lot more to Iowa than hogs and farmland (though there are plenty of those, too). Here are 15 things you probably didn’t know about the Hawkeye State.

1. Woolly mammoth bones have been found in Iowa. In 2010, a man and his two sons were hunting for blackberries when one of the boys spotted a ball near a creek. Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t a ball at all—it was actually a 12,000-year-old woolly mammoth femur. An archaeological dig later revealed much of the entire skeleton. While it’s not uncommon to find woolly mammoth fossils in Iowa—the prehistoric pachyderms used to call the area home—it is unusual to find such a complete set.

2. A surveying mistake almost caused a war between Iowa and Missouri in the 1830s. The surveyor’s state boundary line slanted four miles further north on the east side than the west because he forgot to adjust his compass. Another official was sent to resurvey, but his line was a bit north of the original line, to the tune of 2,600 acres. When a Missouri official tried to collect taxes from the settlers who lived in the disputed acres, an Iowan sheriff arrested him. The governors of each state threatened each other with combat, with militias and volunteers called to gather at the border. Before any shots were fired, the federal government stepped in and drew the line (literally).

So why is it called “The Honey War”? Early on in the conflict, a copse of trees containing a large number of honeybees was destroyed.

3. The state is named after the Ioway people, a Native American tribe that once inhabited the area. But what “Iowa” actually means is a bit ambiguous. According to the writings of an early pioneer, the name comes from an incident where a tribe of Native Americans spied the land for the first time and proclaimed it “Iowa, Iowa, Iowa,” which meant “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.” However, another story says that it’s just a variation on the French word “Ayuhwa,” which means “sleepy ones”—something the Dakota Sioux tribe called the Ioway Nation.

4. Geaux Hawkeyes? As a nod to its roots—Iowa was part of the Louisiana Purchase—the state flag bears the same vertical blue, white, and red stripes that the French flag does.

5. Much of Iowa was mapped by Zebulon Pike, the Pikes Peak guy. Speaking of which, there’s a Pikes Peak in Iowa, too. It’s only 12,980 feet shorter than the one in Colorado.

6. Iowa’s population is actually more urban than rural—61.1 percent vs. 38.9 percent. [PDF]

7. Sliced bread was invented by an Iowan. Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented the automatic bread slicer in 1912, but it was destroyed in a fire. He rebuilt the machine, and it was first used commercially in 1928.

8. The land-locked state is actually home to an island city. Sabula is just one mile long and a quarter of a mile wide, with a mere 576 residents. It wasn’t actually an island until 1939, when the construction of a lock and dam system flooded the lowlands west of the town.

9. About those hogs—yeah, there are a lot of them. There are more hogs than people in Iowa, actually. As of 2013, the state’s hog population was 21.2 million animals, whereas the human population was just north of three million.

10. The Red Delicious apple originated at an orchard in Peru, Iowa. But if you, like most people, find that Red Delicious apples are perhaps not as tasty as the name might imply, don’t blame Iowa. Today’s variety bears little resemblance to the 1872 original.

11. When the Civil War broke out, Iowa had only been a state for 15 years and had a population of just 600,000. Though the 76,534 Iowan men who served in the Union may seem like small potatoes compared to contributions from other states, no other state had a higher percentage of its male population serve. Iowa even had a regiment called the “Greybeards” because the men were all considered elderly, including one octogenarian.

12. Contrary to popular belief, not all of Iowa is flat, especially 640,000 acres on the western side. That’s where you’ll find the famous Loess Hills, dunes created by windblown soil during the Ice Age.

13. We have our own version of the famous Nazca Lines here in the United States—and some of them are in Iowa. Effigy Mounds, large scale Native American sculptures of animals, humans, and religious figures made out of piles of earth, date as far back as 350 CE. Sculptures of birds and bears are the most popular in Northeast Iowa, where Effigy Mounds National Park covers 2,526 acres—and there are no cars allowed.

14. Clear Lake, Iowa, is where “the music died.” Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson all died when their plane crashed into a field there in 1959.

15. When it comes to women’s rights, Iowa has always been way ahead of the curve. Married women received property rights in 1851, and in 1869, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that women should be allowed to practice law, making Iowan Arabella Mansfield the first female lawyer in the U.S.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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11 Fascinating Facts About Mark Twain

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mark Twain is widely considered the author of the first great American novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but his rollicking tales aren’t the only legacy he left behind. His poignant quotes and witticisms have been told and retold (sometimes erroneously) over the last century and a half, and his volume of work speaks for itself. Over the course of his legendary career, Twain—real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens—wrote more than a dozen novels plus countless short stories and essays and still found time to invent new products, hang out with famous scientists, and look after a house full of cats.

1. Mark Twain is a nautical reference.

Like many of history’s literary greats, Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) decided to assume an alias early on in his writing career. He tried out a few different names—Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and, more plainly, Josh—before settling on Mark Twain, which means two fathoms (12 feet) deep in boating jargon. He got the idea while working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River—a job he held for four years until the Civil War broke out in 1861, putting a halt to commerce. (However, another popular theory holds that he earned the nickname in a bar. According to reports in a couple of 19th-century newspapers, he’d walk into a pub and call out “mark twain!,” prompting the bartender to take a piece of chalk and make two marks on a wall for twain—two—drinks. Twain denied this version of events, though.)

2. In addition to being a steamboat pilot, Mark Twain also worked as a miner.

Shortly after his stint on The Big Muddy, Twain headed west with his brother to avoid having to fight in the war. He took up work as a miner in Virginia City, Nevada, but the job wasn't for him. (He described it as "hard and long and dismal.") Fortunately for Twain, he didn’t have to work there long. In 1862, he was offered his first writing job for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he covered crime, politics, mining, and culture.

3. A story Mark Twain heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1864, Twain headed to Calaveras County, California in hopes of striking gold as a prospector (he didn’t). However, it was during his time here that he heard the bartender of the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp share an incredulous story about a frog-jumping contest. Twain recounted the tale in his own words in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was published in 1865 in The New York Saturday Press and went on to receive national acclaim.

4. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Twain started writing the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, but he wasn’t too pleased with his progress. After writing about 400 pages, he told a friend he liked it "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. He put the project on the back burner for several years and finally finished it in 1883 following a burst of inspiration.

5. Mark Twain invented a board game.

While Twain was putting off writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was busy working on a game he dubbed Memory Builder. It was originally supposed to be an outdoor game to help his children learn about England’s monarchs, but he ended up turning it into a board game to improve its chances of selling. However, after two years of work, it was still too convoluted to be marketable and required a vast knowledge of historical facts and dates. That didn’t stop him from patenting the game, though.

6. Mark Twain created "improved" scrapbooks and suspenders.

Memory Builder wasn't Twain's only invention; he also patented two other products. One was inspired by his love of scrapbooking, while the other came about from his hatred of suspenders. He designed a self-adhesive scrapbook that works like an envelope, which netted him about $50,000 in profits. His “improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” also ended up being useful, but for an entirely different purpose than Twain originally intended. According to The Atlantic, “This clever invention only caught on for one snug garment: the bra. For those with little brassiere experience, not a button, nor a snap, but a clasp is all that secures that elastic band, which holds up women's breasts. So not-so-dexterous ladies and gents, you can thank Mark Twain for that."

7. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at home.

Only one video of Twain exists, and it was shot by none other than his close friend Thomas Edison. The footage was captured in 1909—one year before the author died—at Twain’s estate in Redding, Connecticut. He’s seen sporting a light-colored suit and his usual walrus mustache, and one scene shows him with his daughters, Clara and Jean. On a separate occasion that same year, Edison recorded Twain as he read stories into a phonograph, but those audio clips were destroyed in a fire. No other recording of Twain’s voice exists.

8. Mark Twain did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When you think of Mark Twain, you probably picture him in an all-white suit with a cigar or pipe hanging from his lips. It’s true that he was photographed in a white suit on several occasions, but he didn’t start this habit until later in life. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “In December 1906, he wore a white suit while appearing before a congressional committee regarding copyright. He did this for dramatic emphasis. Several times after that he wore white out of season for effect.” He also refused to trade his white clothes for “shapeless and degrading black ones” in the winter, no matter how cold it got. So take that, people who subscribe to the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

9. At one point, Mark Twain had 19 cats.

Twain really, really liked cats—so much so that he had 19 of them at one time. And if he was traveling, he would “rent” cats to keep him company. In fact, he had a much higher opinion of felines than humans, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” He also had a talent for coming up with some great cat names; Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, Bambino, and Satan were just a few of the kitties in his brood.

10. Mark Twain probably didn’t say that thing you think he said.

Twain is one of the most misquoted authors in history. According to one quote wrongfully attributed to him, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What Twain actually said was, “[He] was endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times and tie.” There are many, many examples of these.

11. Mark Twain accurately predicted when he would die.

When he was born on November 30, 1835, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth. It appears roughly every 75 years, and Twain predicted he would die the next time it graced the sky. As he put it in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.” He ended up passing away at his Connecticut home on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky once again.

This story has been updated for 2020.