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5 Surprising Uses for Stilts

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Getty Images

Most people think of stilts as something for circuses and kiddie parties, but they’ve been used in a number of strange ways since ancient times. In fact, stilts have a long, proud history of weirdness that continues today.

1. A Town Of Stilt Walkers

In the 19th century, Landes, France was a brushy wasteland that turned swampy whenever it rained. Locals dealt with this harsh environment by walking on stilts—everyone, from housewives to the mailman, had a pair.

Landes shepherds used these tchangues, or “big legs,” to direct their flocks. Wearing sleeveless fur jackets and berets, they maneuvered over the landscape with ease, using their walking sticks as a crook. When they rested, they sat on a tripod of the stilts and walking stick so they could watch their sheep from on high. To pass the time, they knitted.

Not surprisingly, Landesians were adept at stilt walking, able to pick up pebbles from the ground and run at fast speeds. When Empress Josephine passed through Landes in 1808, stilt walkers kept up with her carriage even though the horses were at full trot. With the 20th century, the region was transformed by forestation and better infrastructure and the need for stilts passed away, although Landes stilt dancing is still known in France.

2. Stilt Marathons

In 1891, a Landes shepherd named Sylvain Dornon stilt walked from Paris to Moscow in 58 days. It was the first of many stilt marathons. Others include 12-year-old Emma Disley scaling Wales' highest mountain on stilts in 1977, Saimaiti Yiming in China stilt walking 49 miles in one day in 2003, and Neil Sauter crossing Michigan to raise money for cerebral palsy in 2013.

The record for the longest stilt walk goes to Joe Bowen, who walked 3008 miles from LA to Kentucky in 1980. But he wasn’t the first person to stilt walk the country. In 1914, the Harrisburg Telegraph sent FE Wilvert from Pennsylvania to San Francisco on stilts. Wearing waterproof pants, a top hat, and a banner, Wilvert sent missives from cities on his route for the newspaper to publish. “You can bet your bottom dollar to a toothpick I’ll make it,” he told the Telegraph—and he did.

3. Stilt Jousting

For 600 years, Namur, Belgium has held a stilt jousting tournament called the Golden Stilt. Teams of jousters in red-and-white costumes try to take each other down by shoving, shoulder butting, poking, kicking, and knocking out their opponent’s stilts. The person still standing at the end wins.

Namur’s stilt jousting is all in fun, but there’s evidence it started out violently. In the Middle Ages, locals took to using stilts whenever the rivers flooded. At some point, stilt fighting became so common that the city banned it in 1411. Apparently, the ban didn’t stick and stilt jousting became an event, with stories of thousands of people competing in the town square. It’s a long tradition that Namur continues today.

4. Working on Stilts

Hop pickers, fruit pickers, window washers, and drywallers all use stilts to avoid messing with a ladder. And then there are the stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka.

For decades, these fishermen have climbed on stilts sticking up in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Suspended above the coral reef on a thin perch attached to the stilt, they use rods to catch herring and mackerel. This practice started after World War II, when fishermen began hanging on discarded iron pipes from the war to avoid disturbing the fish.

Although stilt fishing is attracting tourists to the region, the fishermen only make pennies per fish. That’s low pay by any standard, and many say stilt fishing is disappearing as the men find more lucrative work in other industries, like, say, tourism.

5. An Extreme Sport

Powerbocking is a sport that has popped up around spring-loaded stilts. Invented by German engineer Alexander Boeck in the 1990s, jumping stilts have fiberglass leaf springs that are attached to a curved aluminum frame that tapers to a footplate called the hoof. They let you jump 3 to 5 feet, take 9-foot kangaroo-like strides, and run 20 miles per hour. It’s like a trampoline is attached to your feet.

Jumping stilts were used in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the U.S. Air Force is rumored to have tested them for military use. It's unclear whether bocking will catch on, but if so, we could be looking at a stilt renaissance in the future. Think of it as the Pogo Stick on steroids.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

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Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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