25 Sweet Facts About Alabama
No timeline of civil rights, space exploration, the Civil War, or other major events in American history would be complete without Alabama. Splitting off from the Mississippi Territory in 1817 and achieving official statehood in 1819, the state has been an integral part of the country's social and economic development. Rocket ships, Pulitzer winners, and revolutionary figures have all occupied its 52,000 square miles. Here are just some of the ways the region has made its mark.
1. The state was indirectly named after a southern Native American tribe that took up residence in central Alabama in the 1500s. Historical accounts have referred to the group as the Alibamo, Alibamu, and Alabamon, among others, but it was the spelling of a river named in their honor that stuck. One Choctaw scholar believes the word is a compound that means “thicket clearers”: Alba means mass of vegetation, while amo is to clear something up
2. If you like your states to have fun nicknames, you’re out of luck. While people have alternately referred to Alabama as the “Heart of Dixie” or the “cotton state,” there is no officially-recognized nickname. (No, ‘Bama does not count.)
It once had wooden roads. The Pratt Cotton Gin Factory in the 1840s needed a reliable route along the Alabama River, so owner Daniel Pratt used pine logs cut in half with the flat side up to act as a pathway that stretched four miles long.
4. Just after Alabama became the fourth state to officially cede from the Union in January 1861, it formally kicked off the Civil War with a written invitation. In April of that year, Confederate soldiers attacked Fort Sumter after receiving a telegram sent from Montgomery instructing them to move forward.
5. The efficacy of submarines in war was the subject of some debate before one built in Mobile put the matter to rest. The Confederate-operated H.L. Hunley torpedoed the Union’s USS Housatonic in February 1864, the first time in history a submersible had successfully downed an enemy ship.
The Civil War ended in 1865, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Alabama residents are completely out of danger. In June 2015, cannonballs were discovered buried under sidewalks at the University of Alabama. Workers who were performing maintenance discovered a cache of 10 and promptly notified authorities, who dispatched a bomb squad to retrieve them.
7. It erected a monument to an insect. The boll weevil burrowed into the state near the Mississippi border beginning in 1909. Over the years, the cotton-munching bug destroyed such a large portion of land that farmers were forced to look elsewhere for natural resources to plant, resulting in a greater variety of crops. A tribute to the noble weevil went up in 1919, but it wasn’t until 1949 that an addition was made so the pest could be immortalized in sculpture.
Though Rosa Parks’ refusal to move from her seat on a Montgomery bus helped spark a prominent civil rights movement, she wasn’t the first to take up the issue. Claudette Colvin, 15, refused to move to the back of a public transport nine months prior, on March 2, 1955; Colvin was tossed in jail. One possible theory as to why she didn’t get more recognition is because Parks, an adult, may have been perceived as more appropriate to help advance the cause than a teenager.
10. It’s the only state that required you to be a legal adult to enjoy its official drink. In 2004, the state recognized Conecuh Ridge Whiskey as the beverage of Alabama. Most other states have opted for juice, soda, or the most popular choice: milk.
11. The Monroeville courthouse where novelist—and future Pulitzer Prize winner—Harper Lee watched her father practice law got a facelift after To Kill a Mockingbird made Lee a national sensation. It’s now a museum devoted to the book. Visitors can often catch a dramatization of the trial with local actors. Though the reclusive author has nothing to do with the commercialization of her work, she did ask that it stop offering a cookbook purportedly written by Calpurnia, the housekeeper in the novel.
12. Alabamians helped put us on the moon. The Saturn V rocket was built in Huntsville, where former Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun set up accommodations to design spacecraft for NASA in the 1950s. It was the Saturn V that propelled the Apollo 11 mission.
Speaking of space, in 2013, Tuscumbia, Alabama, was the site of a War of the Worlds-like hoax when a local radio station pretended it had been taken over by aliens. Really, this was part of a broader plan to market the station's new format, but some residents took the skit seriously and kept their children home from school. Meanwhile, the town stepped up police presence at several schools in the area.
14. Two Alabama residents made the first-ever 911 call on February 16, 1968. The local telephone company in Haleyville installed a first-responder system based on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recommendations for a national emergency line. Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite called U.S. Representative Tom Bevill. It wasn’t long-distance, though: both men were in the City Hall building at the time.
15. Scottsboro is the ultimate destination for unclaimed travel baggage. The city is home to the massive, department-store sized Unclaimed Baggage Center, which is where lost luggage gets routed after all attempts to locate owners have been exhausted. The goods are then sold, thrift store-style, to customers. (In case you were wondering, only one traveler has ever bought an item that turned out to be theirs to begin with: a pair of ski boots.)
Operating on the heart was a rare and dangerous business when Luther Hill took a scalpel to a wounded 13-year-old boy in Montgomery in 1902. Thought to be the first cardiac operation in the United States, Hill sutured a knife wound in the heart while his patient was knocked out on a kitchen table.
18. There really is a Sweet Home Alabama. Architect William Benns built a custom home for customer and funeral director H.W. Sweet in 1906. The historic plaque outside the property in Bessemer indicates the house cost Sweet $10,000.
19. When Miss Baker became the first monkey to survive a space expedition in 1959, she was hailed as a hero in Huntsville. When natural causes claimed her in 1984, a graveyard plot was set up outside of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. People sometimes leave bananas on top of her tombstone.
Like the standard features in your car? You have Alabamians to thank. Mary Anderson invented windshield wipers in 1903 after seeing drivers lean out of their cars to wipe rain from the windows; Auburn University graduate George Kirchoff spent nearly four decades working on refining the airbag.
21. One area post office takes the whole inclement-weather pledge very seriously. A route in Magnolia Springs is made up entirely of mailboxes situated riverside. It takes postal workers in a boat more than four hours to service 180 homes along the 31-mile stretch.
22. Albertville, Alabama, is the fire hydrant capital of the world. After the Mueller Company produced its millionth hydrant, dogs howled with joy at seeing a chrome hydrant installed in front of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
23. It’s the only place you’re going to find a miniature city built by a hunchbacked monk. Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman is a four-acre tribute to famous holy monuments created by Brother Joseph Zoettl through 1958. The delicately-constructed display is now a popular tourist attraction.
While New Orleans gets most of the glory—and street vomit—Alabama was actually the first place to celebrate Mardi Gras. When the city of Mobile was founded in 1702, mystic societies called “krewes” held the gatherings.
25. There are dinosaurs hiding in the pine trees. In 1991, billionaire George Barber commissioned artist Mark Cline to construct four dinosaurs, nearly to scale, for his property around Barber Marina in Elberta. Despite their impressive footprint, they’re not easily seen from the road. Barber also had Cline make a replica of Stonehenge.