25 Brilliant Facts About North Carolina

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron / Chloe Effron

With its sandy beaches, rolling mountains, and bustling cities, North Carolina has natural beauty, culture, and industry in spades. Here are 25 things you might not have known about the 12th state of the Union.

1. North Carolina’s most common nickname is the “Tar Heel State.” Historians don’t quite know how it got the moniker, but they think it might stem from the state’s legacy as a leading producer of tar, pitch, rosin, and turpentine. Other nicknames for North Carolina include the Old North State, the Land of the Sky, and the Rip Van Winkle State. 

2. The Wright Brothers tested various prototypes for a flying machine in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, because the remote location provided them with privacy, soft grounds, and steady winds. In 1903, the siblings finally achieved their dream of building a heavier-than-air flying machine with their Wright Flyer. Today, North Carolina license plates boast that their state was “First In Flight”—a claim that rankles Ohio residents, who argue that the Wright Brothers mostly lived and worked in their state.

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3. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Billy Taylor, and Nina Simone are just a sampling of legendary jazz artists who were born in North Carolina.

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4. Speaking of musicians, more American Idol finalists are from North Carolina than any other state. A few ordinary Tarheels whose lives were changed after they appeared on the hit reality TV show include Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino, and Chris Daughtry. 

5. Asheville, North Carolina, is a mecca for craft beer lovers. According to one recent report, the mountain getaway boasts the largest number of breweries per capita of any city in the United States, including Wicked Weed Brewing, Green Man Brewery, and Highland Brewing Company

6. Asheville is also home to America’s largest mansion, the Biltmore Estate, which was built by wealthy railroad scion George Washington Vanderbilt II in the late 19th century. Tourists from across the world flock to the 255-room abode to enjoy its winery, lush gardens, and French chateau-inspired architecture. 

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7. North Carolina’s state song is “The Old North State,” its state bird is the cardinal, and its state motto is Esse quam videri, which means “To be, rather than to seem.” 

8. Founded in 1798, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is the nation’s oldest public university—according to UNC, at least. (The University of Georgia and The College of William & Mary also lay claim to the title.)

9. In 1954, a Fayetteville, North Carolina resident named Don Clayton created Putt-Putt golf as a no-frills alternative to windmill-filled, obstacle-ridden mini-golf courses.

10. In 1893, one of the world’s most famous soft drinks was born in New Bern, North Carolina. A drugstore clerk named Caleb Bradham invented Pepsi, which he originally called “Brad’s Drink.” The former doctor-in-training believed his syrupy concoction aided digestion, and re-named the drink “Pepsi-Cola ” in 1898 after the word “dyspepsia.”  

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11. Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore, but he made history in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when he hit his first professional home run on March 7, 1914. 

12. U.S. Presidents James K. Polk, Andrew Jackson, and Andrew Johnson were all from North Carolina

13. Dellview, North Carolina is North Carolina’s smallest municipality, and is considered to be one of America’s tiniest incorporated towns. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it had only 13 residents as of 2010. 

14. North Carolina’s Outer Banks are beautiful for tourists, but deadly for sailors. The region is nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” thanks to a series of sandbars and strong currents that have sent countless ships to a watery grave. According to records, more than 1000 vessels have sunk in the region since 1526.

15. North Carolina’s coast was also a favorite haunt of the infamous pirate Blackbeard. The outlaw spent years plundering ships and holding hostages for ransom before he was finally killed by British naval forces in a battle off Ocracoke Island in 1718. 

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16. On November 21, 1789, North Carolina became the 12th state to join the Union—and as of May 20, 1861, it became the tenth state to secede from it

17. Thanks to its rich land and mild climate, North Carolina produces more sweet potatoes than any other state in the nation. 

18. If North Carolina ever runs out of sweet potatoes, it still has its Christmas tree industry. The state produces between 15 and 20 percent of the nation's real Christmas trees, including the popular North Carolina Fraser fir [PDF]. 

19. For centuries, historians have been captivated by the lost English colony of Roanoke Island. In 1587, the colony was established by the English gentleman Sir Walter Raleigh, and was settled by a group of 117 men, women, and children. After three months, the colony’s governor, John White, made the trip back to England for supplies. Thanks to the country’s war with Spain, Britain was short on ships, and White’s return was delayed. When he came back to Roanoke Island three years later, he found that its inhabitants had mysteriously disappeared. The only trace he found of the colonists were the word “cro” etched into a tree, and “croatan” carved into a fence post. 

20. High Point, North Carolina, is known as a major furniture manufacturing city. Thanks to this credential, it's branded itself as the "Furniture Capital of the World." 

21. On average, North Carolina is hit by a hurricane every 3.44 yearsIs it any wonder, then, that Raleigh's professional ice hockey team is called the Carolina Hurricanes

22. North Carolina's state capital is Raleigh. With an estimated population of 439,896 people, it's smaller than Charlotte, North Carolina, which has more than 800,000 residents. However, data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that both urban areas rank among America's fastest-growing cities. 

23. Three prominent universities—the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina State University—anchor what's known as the Research Triangle, an area in the state's Piedmont region. It's home to Research Triangle Park, which was founded in 1959 to encourage top students to find local jobs. One of the largest research parks in the world, it boasts multiple companies and institutions, including Cisco, the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

24. If you're visiting North Carolina and you're not a beach person, just head inland. Multiple sub-ranges of the Appalachian Mountains—including the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains—stretch across the state's western region. 

25. In 1937, a man named Vernon Rudolph established the small, Winston-Salem-based business that would eventually balloon into one of the world's biggest pastry behemoths: Krispy Kreme doughnuts.