25 Well-Tuned Facts About Tennessee

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron / Chloe Effron

If it weren't for America's 16th state, we wouldn't have cotton candy, Mountain Dew, or—gasp!—Dolly Parton. Below, 25 facts you should file away about Tennessee.

1. Mountain Dew was invented there. The popular neon soft drink was originally developed by brothers Ally and Barney Hartman as a mixer, something to cut the acrid taste of homemade moonshine. Pepsi bought the Hartman brothers' lemon-lime concoction in 1964.

Bellczar via WikimediaCommons // CC BY-SA 3.0

2. Theodore Roosevelt coined the Maxwell House slogan “good to the last drop” after tasting a cup of coffee in Nashville. Except he probably didn’t. And it may not have even been Maxwell House Coffee. Confused? Here’s the deal: For decades, Maxwell House has claimed that in October 1907, Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed a particularly amazing cup of their java at Andrew Jackson’s estate near Nashville. Upon finishing it, TR smacked his lips and said, “Ahhh... good to the last drop!” Now, if you think a perfect advertising campaign dropped from the lips of one of the most popular presidents ever sounds too good to be true, you’re likely right.

Though he was in Nashville in October 1907 and was known to enjoy vast quantities of coffee, there’s no proof that he uttered any such thing. What’s more, the now-defunct Fit-For-A-King coffee once claimed the coffee Teddy enjoyed that day was actually their brand, and what he really said was, “This is the kind of stuff I like to drink, by George, when I hunt bears!” 

3. Tennesseans are sometimes referred to as “Butternuts.” The seemingly odd nickname dates back to the Civil War, when soldiers from the state wore tan uniforms that resembled the color of the winter squash.

4. Residents are often also called “Volunteers,” and the state nickname is “The Volunteer State.” That story also has wartime origins—so many men from the area fought in the War of 1812 that newspapers referred to them as “the volunteers from Tennessee.” The name caught on.

5. Love a good game of putt-putt? Thank a Tennessean. Garnet Carter patented “Tom Thumb Golf” in the late 1920s. While other putting greens and mini courses existed before then, Carter’s was the first to incorporate small obstacles like gnomes and hollowed out tree trunks, which were meant to complement his “Fairyland Inn” in Chattanooga.

6. Another concoction from Chattanooga: The MoonPie. Legend has it that the marshmallowy treat was invented in 1917 after the owner of the Chattanooga Bakery asked a coal miner what kind of snack he’d like to pack in his lunchbox. Something with graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow, the miner said. Then the baker wondered how big the pastry should be. The miner held his hands up to the sky and framed the moon.

Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

7. Motorists traveling through the Cherokee National Forest may find themselves passing through the so-called Shortest Tunnel in the World. Backbone Rock in the Appalachian Mountains stood between a train route from Damascus, Virginia, and Shady Valley, Tennessee, so workers blasted a hole in the rock in 1901. They realized after the fact that they had forgotten to leave room for a train’s smokestack and had to hand-chisel enough space for it to pass through. It did the trick, and soon, the Beaver Dam Railroad was able to haul 100,000 boards every day for the Tennessee Lumber and Manufacturing Company. The train route eventually closed, however, and the 20-foot tunnel was repurposed for the highway.

8. The cotton candy machine was invented by a dentist from Nashville. Perhaps trying to generate more cavities to fill, dentist William Morrison and candymaker John C. Wharton co-created the cotton candy machine in 1897. They debuted their device at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where it was an immediate hit: They sold 68,655 boxes for 25 cents each.

9. Up until recently, Patrick’s Pub and Grill in Copperhill, Tennessee, straddled the Tennessee/Georgia state line—and due to state laws, the Georgia side of the bar was dry. The layout of the pub also allowed people to grab a bite to eat in Tennessee, then pop over to Georgia to use the bathroom. The gimmick apparently wasn’t enough to keep the place open, however, and it closed sometime in 2015.

10. There have been so many songs written about Tennessee that it has 10 official state songs—including one state rap. The first song, “My Homeland, Tennessee,” was adopted in 1925. “Rocky Top,” arguably the most famous, was adopted in 1982. Here’s Dolly Parton’s rendition:

11. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the U.S. With more than 10 million visitors per year, it bests the Grand Canyon (4.8 million), Yosemite (4 million), and even Yellowstone (3.5 million).

12. President James K. Polk and First Lady Sarah Polk are buried at the state capitol building, mostly because no one knew what else to do with them. When Polk died in 1849, he was buried on the grounds at Polk Place, his estate in Nashville. But not long after First Lady Sarah Polk passed away in 1891, the heirs to Polk Place sold the grounds to a developer. The bodies had to go somewhere, so someone suggested that the government do something to honor the 11th president. State officials found a spot for the Polks on the capitol grounds.

Stacy Conradt

13. You probably know the opening lyrics to the Davy Crockett song, even if you don’t know a single word after that. That first line, “Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee” is partially true—David Crockett really was born in what is now Tennessee, but it wasn’t a state at the time. And his birthplace wasn’t on a mountaintop, but on a relatively flat stretch of land. But what might be most surprising to some people is that Davy Crockett was a real person, not an American tall tale. Crockett represented Tennessee in the U.S. House of Representatives before dying during the defense of the Alamo in 1836.

14. Memphis is home to one of the five most-visited private homes in the United States. Elvis Presley’s former home, Graceland, hosts more than 500,000 visitors annually. Tourism varies by year, but Graceland is usually second only to the White House, which often sees more than 100,000 visitors every month.


15. Tennessee hosts the world’s longest-running radio show—you probably know it better as the Grand Ole Opry. The show went on the air as the “WSM Barn Dance” in 1925. It was later deemed “The Grand Ole Opry” by show host George Hay, and it’s still on the air more than 90 years later.

16. At 4.5 acres, the Lost Sea in the Craighead Caverns near Sweetwater, Tennessee, is the largest non-subglacial underground lake in the U.S. Visitors can cross the lake in a glass-bottomed boat, but there’s no bottom in sight—in fact, there’s a large series of “rooms” connected underneath, and divers have yet to find the end of them.

17. It may come as no surprise that Tennessee is the birthplace of country music, but the genre's specific home isn't the town you think it is. In 1927, music producer Ralph Peer recorded more than 76 songs in downtown Bristol, Tennessee, in just 10 days, bringing in performers from around the Appalachian Mountain area. This included the Carter family, later declared the First Family of Country Music. Congress officially proclaimed Bristol the “Birthplace of Country Music” in 1998.

18. The state was once home to Tanasi, the capital of the Cherokee Nation from 1721 to 1730. The capital was eventually absorbed by the town of Chota, which then became the capital instead. The official site is now underwater, but a marker erected in 1989 pays homage to what once was. You can find it in McGee Carson Peninsula State Historic Park. And yes—the state may have been named after this village.

Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

19. Once upon a time, there was a copper mining operation in Ducktown, Tennessee. The environmental damage done at the site was so vast—23,000 acres of severely eroded and scorched earth—that it could be easily seen from space, allowing astronauts to use it as a landmark, along with the Great Wall of China and the pyramids in Egypt. Happily, the Tennessee Valley Authority stepped in to help reclaim the land. So far, their efforts have restored 11,025 of the 23,000 damaged acres, including the reintroduction of native fish and songbirds.

20. The three stars on the Tennessee flag are meant to represent the three Grand Divisions of the state: East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee. The white circle that surrounds them represents the unity of the divisions.

21. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is no secret now, but when it was founded in 1942, the entire town was kept under wraps. That’s because the city was formed for workers on the Manhattan Project, the secret military operation that resulted in the first nuclear weapons. Residents were fenced in, with guards stationed at every exit. The project was so cloaked in secrecy that many employees had no idea what they were working on until the bombs were dropped. The city was returned to civilian control two years after the war ended.

James Westcott via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

22. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The site is now a National Civil Rights Museum. Among the exhibits is the hotel’s original room 306, where King was staying when he was assassinated. A wreath on the balcony outside marks the spot where he fell.

23. In 1925, teacher John Scopes was fined $100 for teaching evolution in his Dayton, Tennessee classroom. The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, often referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, is one of the most famous court cases in history—and the whole thing was totally staged. Scopes had agreed to help “test” a new Tennessee law that prohibited teachers from including evolution in their curriculum. In the end, the Bible won, and evolution wasn’t brought back to the classroom until the 1960s.

24. You may not think of Tennessee as the epitome of the American melting pot, but Nashville has the largest Kurdish community in North America. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, more than 13,000 Kurds fleeing Iraq were drawn to the city’s low cost of living and high availability of jobs.

25. Kingston, Tennessee, was the state capital for a single day, the result of a dirty trick pulled by the early settlers. In 1805, the Cherokee agreed to a deal transferring thousands of acres to Tennessee settlers—as long as nearby Kingston was declared the state capital. Fine, the settlers said—and held a single Tennessee House of Representatives assembly there on September 21, 1807. The capital reverted to Knoxville the next day.