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Alabama

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If you want to learn about a place, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

We'll kick things off in "the Heart of Dixie": the Yellowhammer State, Alabama.

The Coon Dog Graveyard

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Key Underwood and his coon dog, Troop, were legends in northwest Alabama’s Colbert County. Whenever men gathered at a hunting camp just outside the town of Cherokee, the tales of Underwood and Troop running raccoons up trees would keep the crowd entertained for hours. The two hunted together for 15 years, until 1937, when Troop died just before Labor Day. To honor his friend, Underwood wrapped Troop’s body in a cotton sack and buried him beneath a tree at the old campgrounds. He marked the spot with a brick from a nearby chimney and used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel a simple epitaph. Soon after, other coon dog owners began burying their faithful hounds at the same site, unintentionally establishing the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, the only one of its kind in the world.

As the name implies, you won’t find any poodles or pitbulls here. Larry Sanderson, Vice President of the Coon Dog Graveyard, has said, “We have stipulations on this thing. A dog can’t run no deer, possum—nothing like that. He’s got to be a straight coon dog, and he’s got to be full hound.” For a dog to be buried at the site, a dog’s owner must find a witness that will back up his coon dog claim, and the body must also pass inspection by a member of the graveyard’s board to verify its breed. More often than not, when a dog is interred, a large gathering turns out to pay their last respects, even if they never knew the dog or the owner. For the 2011 burial of Bo, a coon dog from southern Illinois, 400 people attended a ceremony that included music, flowers, prayers, and even a flyover by a local pilot.

So far, more than 250 coon dogs have been laid to rest at the cemetery. Some of the graves carry simple wooden or metal markers, while others have ornate tombstones like those you’d find in a more traditional graveyard. In addition, every Labor Day, a festival is held to honor these loyal hounds, complete with live music, a barbecue, and, befitting the tall tales told at the hunting camp, a liar’s contest.

The Boll Weevil Monument

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When a city dedicates a monument, it’s usually to honor a worthy member of the community or mark an historic event people would like to remember. But since 1919, Enterprise, Alabama has had a statue dedicated to a six millimeter beetle that nearly brought the local economy to its knees.

The boll weevil is a tiny insect that gets its name from its favorite meal—the silky fibers inside the boll, or seed pod, of the cotton plant. The pest crossed over from Mexico in the late 1800s and began eating its way across the South. In Coffee County, Alabama, cotton production had fallen from an average 15,000 bales to only 5000 bales in the 1915 crop, all due to the creeping weevil invasion. In a desperate attempt to save the region’s economy, two businessmen traveled to North Carolina in 1916 and brought back a load of seed peanuts. After much cajoling, one farmer finally agreed to plant his entire acreage in the new crop. For that year, cotton plummeted to only 1500 bales, but the peanuts were a bumper crop at 8000 bushels. Other farmers jumped on the peanut wagon and, in 1917, Coffee County produced over 1 million bushels of the legume, valued at over $5 million. To this day, Alabama continues to be a major producer of peanuts, with an estimated 150,000 acres planted in 2013.

When the peanut became a bona fide hit in Coffee County, Enterprise, Alabama businessman Roscoe Owen Fleming suggested—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—that the city should erect a monument to the weevil. After all, by convincing farmers to adapt to conditions and try something new, the little bug had, in a roundabout way, saved the town. The joke caught on, though, and Fleming soon ordered a statue from Italy featuring a woman dressed in a flowing gown holding a trophy over her head. Water sprayed from the trophy into a large concrete basin below, and two street lights lit the ornate column upon which she stood, reaching a height of about 13 feet. The $3000 monument (~$40,000 today), mostly paid for by Fleming, was placed in the middle of the street in the city’s business district on December 11, 1919 at a dedication ceremony attended by 5000 people. George Washington Carver, a major proponent for peanuts as an alternative to cotton, was scheduled to speak at the ceremony, but train rails were flooded out and he was unable to attend.

But what’s a boll weevil monument without a boll weevil? Thirty years after its dedication, the fountain was capped with a larger-than-life model of the voracious insect. Naturally, the big bug became a magnet for bored pranksters who have stolen it on more than one occasion, often damaging the rest of the statue in the process. After the weevil disappeared in 1998, taking much of the maiden’s arms with it, the entire statue was moved to a nearby museum for safekeeping. In its place is a resin replica made from a cast that was used to make an exact copy for a Southern history exhibit at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. But vandals beware: The boll weevil monument is now monitored by a security camera 24/7.

Know the story behind an unusual person or place in your state? Maybe a little-known urban legend that others should hear? Is your state home to the largest ball of twine or a creepy abandoned theme park? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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davi_deste via eBay

There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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