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20 things you probably didn’t know about Alabama

The capital is Montgomery, we’re really good at college football, and Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote a song about her back in the ’70s…

For most people, those are probably the three most well-known facts about Alabama (and to be honest, if you live outside the state, you might not know the capital is Montgomery).

But there’s more to Alabama than people give it credit for.

Here are 20 things you probably didn’t know about Alabama.

1. The Super Soaker was invented by an Alabamian.

Source: USPTO

Mobile native Lonnie Johnson was a member of the Air Force when he first completed the prototype for his water gun back in 1982. And after seven years of refining his invention and leaving the military to go into business for himself, Johnson sold his device to the Larami Corporation in 1989. Originally called the “Power Drencher,” the name was later changed to the “Super Soaker,” and as they say, the rest is history.

Larami would later be purchased by toymaker Hasbro and the Super Soaker would become one of the most popular kid’s toys of all-time with sales today approaching $1 billion. In 1996, Johnson would cement his legacy as the “king of toy guns” when he received a patent for a “pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile and the like,” perhaps known better as the Nerf dart gun.

2. ‘The Father of the Airbag’ is an Auburn graduate.

Source: Mobile Bay Mag

George F. Kirchoff (pictured above) got his start in the aerospace industry. Eventually, he would find himself taking his expertise in rocket propellants with him into another field – airbag design. Airbags weren’t an entirely new concept in the 1970s – they were, however, ineffective, oftentimes not deploying quickly enough in a crash or, at worst, not deploying at all. So Kirchoff and his team set out to perfect the design, conducting hundreds of tests over several years with Kirchoff himself sometimes serving as the subject.

And after years of hard work, their designs began making their way into vehicles in the 1980s amid increasing safety standards and public concerns. In 2011, BMW AG presented Kirchoff with a lifetime achievement award for his dedication to safety systems and his design that has saved countless lives over the years.

3. Alabama was the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday…maybe.

Full disclosure, there’s a little bit of debate about this one. For years, magazines and newspapers and digital outlets all reported that Alabama was the first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday back in 1836. However, no records have ever been found to support that claim. According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, this claim could date back to 1954 when it appeared in James H. Barnett’s book The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture without any citation.

But if you type into Google, “What’s the first state to make Christmas a holiday in the US?” it will tell you Alabama in big bold letters, and that’s good enough for us, right?

4. Alabama has one of the longest constitutions in the world.

The Alabama Constitution was ratified in 1901 and comes in at 380,000 words long with a whopping 950 amendments. It’s by far the longest state constitution in the country, with Texas’ governing document coming in second with just under 87,000 words (and in case you’re wondering the US Constitution is a little over 7,000). But is it really the world’s longest constitution? The answer – probably, even though it’s never been officially stated.

India is the second-most populous country in the world with almost 1.4 billion people – 28o times the population of Alabama. Their constitution – just 145,000 words. So while it’s never been official, it’s safe to say Alabama’s claim to the longest constitution is a fairly accurate one.

5. Magnolia Springs is the only US city to have mail delivered entirely by boat.

Source: USA Today

Mark Lipscomb doesn’t have to worry about dogs nipping at his heels during his postal route. Alligators… maybe, but not dogs. That’s because Lipscomb works the only year-round delivery mail route in the country for the small town of Magnolia Springs in Baldwin County.

According to USA Today, which highlighted the unique job back in 2013, the all-water route started in 1915 and serves close to 180 homes along its 31-mile length. It usually takes four hours to deliver the mail, and, over the years, it’s become a sense of pride for the amount of attention it brings to the community. So next time you’re heading to Gulf Shores, stop by Magnolia Springs and see if you can catch Mark and his 15-foot aluminum boat in action.

6. The world’s largest cast-iron statue is in Birmingham.

Source: Birmingham Times

At over 50-feet tall and weighing in at 50 tons, the Vulcan statue in Birmingham is the world’s largest cast-iron statue and one of the most memorable works of civic art in the United States. Named after the Roman god of fire and forge, the statue was designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti as a way to honor the city’s history in the iron and steel industry and served as Birmingham’s entry for the 1904 World’s Fair.

Today, Vulcan looks out over the city atop Red Mountain where it’s stood since 1936. There’s even a museum there that draws in tourists from around the country.

7. Alabama’s first permanent capital was in Cahaba.

Source: Alabama News Network

Alabama has had five capitals in its history. During Alabama’s territorial days, the town of St. Stephens in what is now Washington County served as the capital. After statehood in 1819, Alabama’s first constitutional convention was held here in Huntsville, the state’s second capital. And it was there that the legislators decided on Alabama’s first permanent capital – Cahaba (also spelled Cahawba).

And if you’ve never heard of this place, you’re probably not alone. Located in Dallas County, where the Cahaba and Alabama rivers meet, Cahaba is a ghost town today, but it served as the hub of state politics from 1820-1825 until political pressure forced a move to Tuscaloosa, where it remained until 1846 before moving to Montogomery. Cahaba is now under the care of the Alabama Historical Commission who are taking steps to try and preserve the site for future generations of Alabamians.

8. Alabama’s nickname as ‘The Yellowhammer State’ comes from the Civil War.

Alabama doesn’t have an official nickname. But we are known as “The Yellowhammer State,” and the yellowhammer is our state bird so that’s the connection, right? Actually, the term ‘yellowhammer’ dates back to the Civil War. The following is from the Alabama Department of Archives and History…

“The yellowhammer nickname was applied to the Confederate soldiers from Alabama when a company of young cavalry soldiers from Huntsville, under the command of Rev. D.C. Kelly, arrived at Hopkinsville, KY, where Gen. Forrest’s troops were stationed. The officers and men of the Huntsville company wore fine, new uniforms, whereas the soldiers who had long been on the battlefields were dressed in faded, worn uniforms. On the sleeves, collars and coattails of the new calvary troop were bits of brilliant yellow cloth. As the company rode past Company A , Will Arnett cried out in greeting “Yellowhammer, Yellowhammer, flicker, flicker!” The greeting brought a roar of laughter from the men and from that moment the Huntsville soldiers were spoken of as the “yellowhammer company.” The term quickly spread throughout the Confederate Army and all Alabama troops were referred to unofficially as the “Yellowhammers.”

And in 1927, a bill was signed into law making the yellowhammer Alabama’s state bird.

9. Windshield wipers were invented in Alabama.

From perfecting airbags to wiping rain off the windshield, Alabama has played a pivotal role in the history of automobiles. Mary Anderson invented the windshield wiper back in 1902, and the story goes something like this. Anderson, from Birmingham, was visiting New York City and riding in a streetcar on a snowy day when she noticed that the driver had to constantly get out and clean off the windshield to see. This caused delays and frustration, and Anderson came up with an idea to fix the problem. What if there was a blade to wipe off the glass instead of the driver?

She returned to Birmingham and got to work inventing the windshield wiper, applying for a patent in 1903. According to NPR, Anderson set out to sell the idea to manufacturers in the emerging motorcar industry, but no one wanted it. She eventually gave up trying to sell her invention and her patent expired in 1920. After which, the automobile industry skyrocketed with windshield wipers becoming a standard piece of equipment. Mary Anderson never made any money off her ubiquitous invention. She was, however, inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.

Mary Anderson

10. The record holder for the ‘world’s largest bubblegum bubble’ is from Haleyville. 

Source: Guinness Book of World Records

According to this article from a Tuscaloosa radio station, 41-year-old Chad Fell from Haleyville prepared to break this record for years by chewing two bags of Double Bubble every week. And on April 24, 2004, Fell blew the world’s largest unassisted bubblegum bubble with a diameter of 20 inches.

Unassisted refers to the fact that he wasn’t allowed to stabilize or stretch the bubble in any way. He was also only allowed to use three pieces of gum, and his record still stands today.

11. Mobile held the first Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S.

Mardi Gras is most often associated with New Orleans, but there is evidence to suggest that Mobile was the first American city to host celebrations. Mobile was founded in 1702 by French settlers, and some historians believe the first celebrations were held there as early as 1703. New Orleans wasn’t even founded until 1718 with Mardi Gras becoming commonplace in the 1730s, although the first recorded parade didn’t hit the streets until 1857.

So while New Orleans has become synonymous with the costumes and beads and celebrations that make up Mardi Gras, Mobile has bragging rights for being the first city to do it.

12. The first 911 call was made in Alabama.

Source: NPR

We all know the number. It’s ingrained in our brains. We can dial it without thinking. House on fire? Call 911. Someone you love is having a heart attack? Call 911. The emergency number might seem as old as the telephone itself, but it’s still a fairly recent invention. Before 1968, folks would sometimes have to call multiple numbers before reaching someone who could help in an emergency, a disastrous situation to have when each second wasted could be the difference between life and death.

So as telephones became more commonplace in American households, it was recommended that a simple number be established that people could call in the event of an emergency. The United Kingdom had developed a similar system back in 1936 with just three, easy to remember numbers – 999. And on February 16, 1968, the first 911 call was made in the small town of Haleyville, Alabama. It wasn’t an emergency call but rather a ceremonial one made by then state Speaker of the House Rankin Fite. However, it wasn’t until 1973 that the White House issued an official statement in support of 911, and by 1987, just 50 percent of the country was using the system. Today, the number is widespread and used throughout the United States and Canada.

13. Full Metal Jacket was based on a novel written by a Russellville native.

Source: Amazon

Gustav Hasford left Russellville High School in 1966 and joined the Marine Corps, serving as a combat correspondent in Vietnam. He was awarded the Navy & Marine Achievement Medal with Valor Device during the Battle of Hue in 1968, and his time in the military would serve as the basis for his semi-autobiographical novel The Short-Timers published in 1979. The book became a best-seller and would later be adapted by Stanley Kubrick for the film Full Metal Jacket.

But Hasford and Kubrick clashed over writing credits, and Hasford never saw much in the way of royalties from the film. And after gaining notoriety in the late ’80s and being sentenced to six months in jail for allegedly stealing more than 700 books over the span of a decade, Hasford died from untreated diabetes in 1993. He was 45.

14. America’s first electric trolley system was in Montgomery.

Source: Encyclopedia of Alabama

When you think of public transportation in America, sprawling metropolises probably first come to mind. Places like New York. Chicago. But did you know the first electric city-wide trolley system started in 1886 in Montgomery? The Capital City Railway Company began servicing downtown Montgomery with what would eventually become known as the “Lighting Route,” which ran for 50 years before finally being replaced by buses.

An original streetcar from that time still remains on display in downtown Montgomery to honor the legacy of this historic public transportation system.

15. Alabama is the only state with all the natural resources necessary to make iron and steel.

Source: Encylopedia of Alabama

The only place in the country where large deposits of the three raw materials needed to make iron and steel – coal, iron ore, and limestone – happens to be in Birmingham. This uniqueness is why the city was founded in 1871 and enjoyed early success as one of the biggest industrial hubs in the South. Named after another industrial city in Great Britain, Birmingham began to grow as the iron and steel industry began to flourish in America.

But over time, labor politics coupled with economic constraints and overseas competition stunted growth and Birmingham never quite became the world-class industrial city once hoped. Sloss Furnace, a once-prominent iron producer, was eventually closed down and turned into a museum in 1982 as a way to preserve the city’s iron and steel past.

16. The first open-heart surgery in the Western hemisphere was performed in Montgomery.

Source: Encyclopedia of Alabama

Luther Leonidas Hill is often regarded as the first American physician to perform a successful surgical repair on a wounded heart. On September 15, 1902, Dr. Hill operated on Henry Myrick, a teenage boy who had been stabbed in the heart the day before. Yes, you read that right – he had been stabbed 24 hours earlier and had been bleeding ever since but still remained conscious. After hours of local area doctors trying everything they could to stop the bleeding, Dr. Hill was called upon to operate.

Even though at the time he was a widely regarded authority on heart wounds, Hill had never actually operated on a living heart. But with the mother’s permission, Hill operated on Myrick’s heart by lantern light, opening up the boy’s chest and suturing the wound closed. The entire operation lasted just 45 minutes, and after a few weeks, Myrick made a full recovery. The event quickly became the talk of the medical community, but heart surgery didn’t advance in the western world for several decades. Still, though, Dr. Hill’s work remains a groundbreaking achievement in medical history and is still remembered today.

17. America’s oldest baseball park is in Birmingham.

Source: Encyclopedia of Alabama

Babe Ruth. Ty Cobb. Jackie Robinson. Some of the most iconic names in baseball history have stepped into the batter’s box at Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in America. Construction on the stadium started in 1909 when Rick Woodward, the son of a prominent businessman in Birmingham, bought controlling interest in the city’s local team and decided a new ballpark needed to be built. Naming it “Rickwood’ after the response from a local newspaper poll, the 7,000 seat park cost $75,000 (about $2 million today) and opened on August 18, 1910.

The Barons would play there from 1910-1987 before moving to a new stadium in Hoover. Today, the stadium is open to tourists and still hosts the occasional game, even having an annual throwback game named the Rickwood Classic, which celebrates the game’s and the ballpark’s historic past.

18. Heather Whitestone of Dothan was the first Miss America with a disability.

Heather Whitestone lost her hearing to an ear infection when she was just 18 months old. But her disability never stopped her from achieving something no one had ever done. Inspired by the life of Helen Keller, Whitestone overcame academic struggles as a child and graduated high school with a 3.6 GPA before moving on to study at Jacksonville State University. It was there that her beauty pageant career started, winning the title of Miss Jacksonville State and later Miss Alabama.

And in 1995, thanks in part to her ballet performance which captivated the audience, Heather Whitestone was crowned Miss America, becoming the first woman with a disability to ever win the title. Since then, she’s become a motivational speaker and author and even had a brief stint in public service, serving as a member of the National Council on Disability under President George Bush.

19. “The Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald has Alabama ties. 

 

Source: Britannica

F. Scott Fitzgerald left Princeton to join the army in 1917. The following year, while stationed in Montgomery, he met the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge, Zelda Sayre, and the two fell madly in love. Fitzgerald eventually left the military and headed north to New York City in hopes of becoming a famous novelist. He took to rewriting a novel he had been working on since Princeton, and finally, in the spring of 1920, he got everything he ever wanted. His debut novel was published, catapulting him to the status of literary sensation, and to top it off, he and Zelda married later that year.

The two of them quickly became the celebrity couple of New York. And their fame only continued to rise during the 1920s as Fitzgerald saw continued literary success and the couple’s social life consistently graced the pages of local newspapers. The Fitzgeralds returned to Zelda’s hometown of Montgomery in 1931 and lived there briefly, but by then, their relationship was frayed and tumultuous. F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 at the age of 44, and Zelda battled mental illness before being killed in a fire in 1948. Today, their home in Montgomery is the only museum in the world dedicated to the Fitzgeralds and is a stop on the Southern Literary Trail.

20. Alabama was the first state to name a whiskey as its official drink.

Source: Clyde Mays

Currently, 28 states have an official state beverage on the books. And if you can believe it, plain old milk is the overwhelmingly favorite, with 20 states declaring it the official drink. But Alabama… Alabama is a little different. Back in 2004, the legislature declared Conecuh Ridge Whiskey as Alabama’s official drink, making it the first state to declare a whiskey as its official beverage. And it all started with a man named Clyde May, who started running illegal moonshine after returning home to Alabama at the end of World War II.

He used baked apples to coat his barrels, giving it its signature apple-infused flavor. At the height of May’s operation, it’s estimated he distilled and distributed nearly 300 gallons of whiskey, becoming the most wanted moonshiner in Alabama if not the country. He was eventually arrested in 1973 and sentenced to eight months in a federal penitentiary. After serving his time, though, he went right back to making whiskey. May died in 1990 and his son used his father’s recipe to legitimize the family business. Conecuh Ridge Distillery was born. And today, the once infamous outlaw now has his name on the official state drink of Alabama.


And there you have it. 20 things you probably didn’t know about Alabama.

So next time you ever find yourself needing to produce some Alabama trivia, maybe one of these facts will come to mind.


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