19 Things You Might Not Know About California


You say it's your birthday? It's California's birthday, too. On September 9, 1850, it became the 31st state in the Union. Let's celebrate with 19 facts about the Golden State.

1. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War. The U.S. paid Mexico $15 million for war damages. In turn, Mexico ceded nearly half of its territory, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah.

2. California was originally known as the Bear State. As California boomed—and the bear population was wiped out—it became the Golden State.

3. The grizzly bear on California's current state flag is a tribute to Monarch, the last wild California grizzly bear. In 1899, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst paid a reporter named Allen Kelley to capture the animal. Monarch was sent to San Francisco, where he lived at Woodward's Garden and then Golden Gate Park. He was a star attraction until his death in 1911. The last reported sighting of a wild California grizzly bear was in 1924.

4. But the original Bear Flag had nothing to do with Monarch. It dates back to 1846, two years before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. A group of Americans who'd settled in California, which was then part of Mexico, feared they'd be expelled. They invaded the Mexican outpost at Sonoma and captured the retired general Mariano Vallejo. A few days later they raised the first Bear Flag and called the land the California Republic.

5. The California Republic only existed for 26 days. U.S. Army Major John C. Frémont soon replaced the Bear Flag with the U.S. flag, which takes us back to the beginning of this post and the Mexican-American War.

6. And who designed the original flag? William Todd, nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln. It's a small historical world.

7. The one-word state motto, "Eureka," hearkens back to the exciting days of the Gold Rush. But it doesn't include an exclamation point. The first "Eureka!" is attributed to the Greek scholar Archimedes. According to legend, he had an epiphany as he stepped into a bathtub and watched the water level rise—he realized that the volume of the displaced water was equal to the volume of the foot he'd submerged. And then he ran out of the room to tell others about his discovery ... while he was completely naked. (More on whether that ever actually happened here.)

8. In 2013, the states of California and New York tied for the fourth-highest average credit score in the U.S.—653. (Minnesota was the victor, with an average score of 658.)

9. California is the only state that's hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

10. Most of the U.S. athletes competing in the 2012 London Olympics came from California. But take that with a grain of salt—one out of every eight Americans is from California.

11. The first step to getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Work in entertainment. The second: Pay a $30,000 nomination fee. Living celebrities are required to appear at their star's unveiling. (Barbra Streisand is the only person who got away with missing the event.) All of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz—122 adults and 12 children—share one star. 

12. The fortune cookie was inspired by the Japanese cookie o-mikuji and invented in California.

13. I can haz state recognition? In 1973, the sabre-tooth cat, Smilodon californicus, became California's state fossil. A year earlier, Assemblyman W. Craig Biddle had nominated the cockroach-like trilobite for the honor. Nearly 2000 museum curators and fossil experts backed him, but the bill never made it to a vote. A year later, the sabre-tooth cat made it to the floor and passed. The one no-vote? Senator W. Craig Biddle.

14. Except for Alaska, California contains more forestland than any other state.

15. Despite living in Los Angeles for 78 years, writer Ray Bradbury never learned to drive.

16. California's most famous for its Gold Rush in 1849, but it also had a Silver Rush in the Calico Mountains from 1881 to 1896. By 1904, Calico was a ghost town.

17. The mineral benitoite can be found in California, Japan, and Arkansas, but only San Benito County, California has it in gemstone quality deposits. The California State Gem Mine in Coalinga allows the public to dig and take home a quart-sized bag of treasure.

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18. Thousands of U.S. banks failed after the 1929 stock market crash—by 1933, only 11,000 were left. All of San Francisco's banks survived.

19. The highest point in the contiguous U.S., 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney, is only 76 miles from the lowest point in the contiguous U.S., Death Valley. They're both in Cali- well, you know.

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.”

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
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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