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Alaska!

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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. 

This week we’re heading to America’s last great frontier to discover the quirky sights and sounds of Alaska.

The Hammer Museum

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Dave Pahl has been collecting hand tools since he moved to Alaska in 1973.  For many years, he and his wife Carol lived on a small plot of land that had no running water or electricity, so keeping plenty of tools around for home repairs became a necessity.  During the snow-induced downtime of cold Alaskan winters, Dave refit old hammerheads with new handles, giving him a greater appreciation for nail drivers, as well as an ever-growing collection of unique specimens.  By 2001, Dave’s hammer collection had become too large to keep at home, so he and Carol purchased a small house on Main Street in Haines, Alaska, and opened the world’s only Hammer Museum

It might sound like the most boring place in America, but the variety in the collection never fails to amaze visitors. Among the items on display is a small hammer that smacked against the tables at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the 1920s to show the crowd’s appreciation for a musical act. Another, a ball of solid dolerite, was used by ancient Egyptians to chisel stone for the third pyramid at Giza. There are Masonic lodge hammers used to call meetings to order, warhammers from China and Rome, and even a hammer used to test the quality of cheese.  The collection includes hammers made from Waterford Crystal, whale blubber, and one consisting of hundreds of sheets of paper.  But the pride and joy of the museum is an 800-year old Tlingit “warrior’s pick,” a hammer that was used to whack an unwilling slave across the head so the body could be buried as a sacrifice when building a new longhouse. Pahl found the ancient tool while adding a basement to the building shortly before the museum opened.  

If you ever find yourself in Haines, Alaska, you can’t miss the museum—there’s a 20-foot statue of a hammer in the front. At any given time you’ll find about 1500 hammers on display from a collection that reportedly numbers over 7000 specimens. 

The Fur Rondy

Even with modern conveniences like central heating, high-speed internet access, and hundreds of TV channels, Alaskan winters can be pretty tough. So it’s no surprise that after so many months of cabin fever, many folks need to get out of the house and blow off some steam. Since 1935, Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, has found this sweet release with a festival of sport called the Fur Rendezvous, or “Fur Rondy” for short.

Created to welcome the mountain-dwelling miners and trappers that arrived at the first signs of spring in order to sell their winter haul, the Fur Rondy originally featured fairly standard athletic events like skiing, hockey, basketball, boxing, and a children’s sled dog race. While many of those competitions are still going strong, over time, quirkier contests have been added to a revolving lineup of events that reflect the unique culture of Alaska. Today, one of the highlights of the festival is the outhouse races, where teams see who can push an outhouse on skis across the finish line first.

The Snowshoe Softball tournament is always fun to watch, as is the fast-paced action of Yukigassen—a game of capture the flag played with snowballs—where the winning team goes on to represent the U.S. in the World Championship tournament in Japan. The snow-packed streets of Anchorage play host to two major contests: The Frostbite Footrace features serious competitors and fun runners wearing the craziest costumes they can find, and the World Championship Sled Dog Race, a grueling three-day competition with some of the best mushers and snow dogs from around the world. And not to be outdone by Pamplona, Spain, the Rondy has the Running of the Reindeer, where Santa’s hooved helpers sprint through crowds of costumed runners who try to stay ahead of the antlers coming from behind.

For those less athletically inclined, the Fur Rondy has plenty to offer, including native artwork, snow sculptures, carnival rides, stage performances at the Goose Theatre, the Rondy on Ice figure skating show, and one of the festival’s original events: the fur, horn, and hide auctions, featuring the finest in animal pelts to keep you warm on cold Alaskan nights. You can also buy a ticket for the long-running Miner’s and Trapper’s Charity Ball to see the crowning of a new “Mr. Fur Face” in the Alaska State Beard and Moustache Contest.

The festival has already closed for 2013, but be sure to check the official website for a full schedule of next year’s dates and events. 

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? Is there a fun festival that everyone should attend? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!

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Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Is This the Most Mysterious Grave in Virginia?
Original image
Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

In 1816, local legend has it that a ship dropped off an unknown couple in Alexandria, Virginia. The woman was extremely ill, possibly from typhoid fever, and couldn’t wait until their final destination to receive medical attention.

Alas, it was too late; she died a few weeks later while boarding at Gadsby’s Tavern. No one had spoken to her or, some say, even seen her face—any time anyone saw her, her features were hidden by a long, black veil. Her husband quickly arranged for a burial at St. Paul’s Cemetery, then borrowed money for a headstone from a local merchant named Lawrence Hill.

Under the circumstances, you might think the mysterious man would keep the epitaph simple, resulting in a more affordable stone and a smaller loan to repay. Instead, he went the opposite route, having a huge marker etched with this wordy tribute:

“To the memory of a Female Stranger, whose mortal sufferings terminated on the 14th day of October, 1816 Aged 23 years and 8 months. This stone is placed here by her disconsolate husband in whose arms she sighed out her latest breath, and who under God did his utmost even to soothe the cold dead ear of death."

It was followed by some verses adapted from Alexander Pope and a Bible quote, adding even more to the bill. The man spared no expense, and it’s no wonder—he apparently had no intention of paying back the loan. The female stranger’s husband skipped town without paying doctor bills, lodging bills, or funeral and burial fees (he did leave behind some currency, but it was forged). And when he left, he took more than his wallet with him—he also took his wife’s identity.

Rumors ran rampant, even 70 years later: In 1886, the Lawrence Gazette reported on several theories, including the popular notion that the woman was really Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr. Alston had been lost at sea around 1812, but conspiracy theorists speculated that she faked her disappearance to escape a loveless marriage. “Why the stranger’s husband would permit no one to see her face after she was dead gives rise to the supposition that he may have feared its recognition by those who looked upon it,” the Gazette said.

Outlandish? Perhaps. But even more so is the tale that the woman was actually a man—Napoleon Bonaparte dressed in drag, to be exact, attempting to escape his exile.

Yet another story declared the woman was named Blanche Fordan, and the man claiming to be her husband had actually hypnotized her into marrying him, though she really loved another.

Sadly, if you're looking for answers, you're going to be disappointed—we still don't have any. The female stranger remains as mysterious today as she was 200 years ago, although her grave has since become a local tourist attraction.

The Greenbrier Bunker of West Virginia

If you want to learn about someplace, 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. This week, we head to West Virginia, the home of Star Wars VII co-writer, Lawrence Kasdan, Barney Fife himself, Don Knotts, and Morgan Spurlock, the guy who ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days. 

The Greenbrier Bunker of West Virginia

Nestled in the mountains of southeast West Virginia is White Sulphur Springs, a small town of just over 2000 people. The main attraction in White Sulphur Springs is The Greenbrier, a 157-year-old hotel for the rich and famous, with amenities like five golf courses, a casino, tennis courts, spa treatments—and a secret underground bunker built to provide a safe haven for the Legislative Branch of the U.S. Government in the event of all-out nuclear war.

Built between 1958 and 1962, under a covert project codenamed “Greek Island,” the two-story, 153-room, 112,554-square foot reinforced concrete bunker was built into a hillside around 60 feet under the West Virginia Wing of the hotel.  While it was never used as a secure location for Congress as intended, it was held at-the-ready until 1992, with 75,000 gallons of water reserves, and over 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel to run three generators that could power the facility if the main electrical grid went down. A large air conditioning unit kept the air contaminant-free and an incinerator would have been used to dispose of garbage and biological waste.

As technology advanced in the ensuing years, new equipment was brought in and installed. To keep the bunker at such a ready state, it was staffed 24/7 for 30 years by a team of government employees operating under the guise of TV repairmen for the hotel.

In order for the government to continue working after the evacuation of Washington D.C. in the event of nuclear war, the bunker was built with a professional studio for radio and television broadcasts, complete with a variety of background photos that gave the impression the speaker was still in Washington.

In addition, the House of Representatives and the Senate each had separate meeting rooms, as well as a large hall for joint assemblies. These conference rooms were hidden in plain sight—they could be booked by hotel guests for special events, under the belief that the rooms were just part of the West Virginia Wing. Little did they know there were secret wall panels that concealed blast doors as large as 18 tons that led to the rest of the compound. 

To accommodate the 1100 people that could potentially live there, bunk beds were installed in 18 dormitories, and a fully-stocked cafeteria was prepared to make meals for up to 60 days. If more food was needed, thousands of military-grade Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) were stocked along the 430-foot tunnel that led into the facility from the main entrance. Complete medical facilities were on-site, including an operating room, ICU, and an infirmary that could hold 14 people, all manned by a staff of 35.  

Every one of the four entrances to the bunker was protected by a set of blast doors, including the largest that was 12 feet by 15 feet of steel and concrete, and weighed 28 tons. However, the door was so well-balanced on its 1.5-ton hinges that it could be opened and closed by a single person.

Although the bunker remained secret for 30 years, there were whispers of its existence around White Sulphur Springs and among the staff at the hotel. Contractors involved in the construction were suspicious of the 50,000 tons of concrete that were poured at the site, and workers remember the blast doors being installed, but no one could ever confirm just what they were building. Many told their story, but it wasn’t until May 1992 when reporter Ted Gup of The Washington Post wrote about the Greenbrier Bunker that these stories were given legitimacy. Shortly after Gup’s story was published, the U.S. Government verified the existence of the bunker—then promptly shut it down. By July 1995, the facility had been turned over to the hotel, which now offers daily tours of the bunker for its guests. 

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

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