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Arkansas

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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. Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

Today we're heading to the birthplace of Wal-Mart, Johnny Cash, and Bill Clinton: the Natural State, Arkansas.

The Legend of Boggy Creek

Conventional cryptozoological wisdom has it that Bigfoot generally sticks to his Pacific Northwest stomping grounds. But for years now, people around the small town of Fouke, Arkansas, near the borders of Texas and Louisiana, have seen their own version of the legendary apeman lurking among the trees on the banks of Boggy Creek. Although sightings go back as far as the 1930s, the Fouke Monster became a mainstream sensation in 1971 when two families staying in a remote cabin claimed they were attacked by a 7-foot tall, 300-pound bipedal creature covered in reddish-brown fur. They were able to scare the thing off with their hunting rifles, but not before 25-year-old Bobby Ford was allegedly wounded by the beast, sending him to the hospital with animal-like scratches on his back. When police investigated the scene, they saw claw marks on the porch and odd, three-toed primate footprints in the area, but no concrete evidence of the creature was found. 

Intrigued by the stories of the monster (and looking to cash-in on the media attention), local advertising salesman Charlie Pierce borrowed $100,000 from a local trucking company to make 1972’s The Legend of Boggy Creek, a feature film with interviews and footage of authentic Fouke Monster witnesses, as well as reenactments of sightings, including the Bobby Ford incident. The film was marketed for drive-in theaters and Saturday matinees, and proved to be a big hit, bringing in over $20 million in box office receipts. (It has also been credited with inspiring The Blair Witch Project thanks to its docudrama storytelling structure.)

New sightings of the Fouke Monster around Boggy Creek crop up every few years, adding new elements to the legend.  Some subsequent witnesses say the creature has long, monkey-like arms, others say he’s 10 feet tall with glowing red eyes, and some accounts mention a horrible smell—like a cross between a skunk and a wet dog—that permeates the air whenever he’s spotted.  Of course there are those who believe these sightings are little more than a case of mistaken identity, with a bear being the most likely culprit.  But whether real or fictional, the legend of Boggy Creek continues to grow, and will undoubtedly do so for years to come.

Christ of the Ozarks

Nestled in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas is Eureka Springs, a picturesque Victorian village that draws tourists year-round to its many arts and music festivals, car shows, and gay-friendly events. The town is filled with unusual sights, like the Guinness Record-holding World’s Largest Tuned Musical Windchime, the ghost-infested Crescent Hotel, and at the top of nearby Magnetic Mountain, a monumental statue of Jesus, known as Christ of the Ozarks.

The oddly-shaped figure—many say it looks like a milk carton with a head and arms—is the work of eccentric sculptor Emmet Sullivan. Sullivan is something of a legend among roadside attraction enthusiasts as the designer of animal and dinosaur statues at a number of theme parks in Arkansas and South Dakota. But at a height of 67 feet, with an arm span 65 feet wide, and weighing in at over two million pounds, Christ of the Ozarks is undoubtedly Sullivan’s most ambitious piece.      

The $1 million monument was commissioned by Gerald L. K. Smith, a controversial figure in American politics during the 1930s and '40s, mostly known for his anti-Semitic rhetoric. Christ of the Ozarks became the centerpiece of Smith’s Sacred Projects, a 167-acre Christian theme park with religious attractions, that opened in 1968 and essentially gave birth to the tourist industry of Eureka Springs.

The attractions at Sacred Projects include full-scale dioramas of locations in the Holy Land, complete with Jesus’ tomb (post-resurrection), that give visitors a snapshot of life in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. There’s also the Bible museum with over 6000 Bibles in 625 languages and dialects, including a page from one of only 47 original Gutenberg Bibles in existence. A gallery with over 1000 pieces of religious artwork is on the grounds, as well as a replica of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and even a section of the Berlin Wall. But the highlight of the park is The Great Passion Play, a live performance starring a cast of 150 actors and a menagerie of animals, that tells the story of Jesus. The play is held in a natural amphitheater that seats over 4000 people on a 550-foot stage, with sets that reach three stories high. Over the years, the play has been seen by over 7 million people, helping it earn the title of America’s #1 Attended Outdoor Drama. 

Although it’s still an important part of the Eureka Springs economy, the Great Passion Play has suffered from low attendance in recent years as other local attractions have become more popular. During its heyday in the 1970s, it welcomed 300,000 annual visitors, but last year’s attendance was just over 46,500.  In fact, the park was forced to shut down in December 2012, but was able to reopen a month later thanks to donations from the public.   

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States! 

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

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