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Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Above-Average Facts About Illinois

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Illinois is known for a few things: prairies, corn (it’s the country’s second-largest producer), and the Chicago Cubs (one of the nation’s longest-running professional sports clubs). But the country’s fifth most populous state is much more than just Chicago and farmland. Here are 25 colorful facts about the midwestern state.

1. Several analyses of U.S. Census data have found that Illinois is the most average state in the nation. That means its population demographics, average incomes, and urban-to-rural proportions look more like the nation as a whole than any other state’s. 

2. Chicago’s O’Hare Airport sees more flights than any other airport in the U.S. In 2015, almost 882,000 flights went through the airport. 

3. It has the tallest building in North America—by some standards. The Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago stands 1451 feet tall. New York City’s One World Trade Center tops out at 1776 feet tall, making it officially taller than Chicago’s 1970s skyscraper. But the roof on One World Trade is actually only 1335 feet tall, with the rest of the height coming from a spire. The Willis Tower has six more floors than One World Trade Center, and its roof stands 100 feet taller. 

4. It was home to the world’s first skyscraper. The Home Insurance Building, built in 1885 in Chicago, is generally considered the first skyscraper, since it was the first tall building to have a structural steel frame. It was 10 stories tall, and the tallest building in the world at the time. It was demolished in 1931 

Image Credit: Chicago Architectural Photographing Company via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

5. John Hughes’ most famous movies were set in the northern part of the state. Hughes went to high school on Chicago’s North Shore, a setting that became integral to his films—most are set in the fictional suburb of Shermer. Many were filmed on the North Shore, too. The Home Alone house is actually a mansion in Winnetka; The Breakfast Club was shot in suburbs like Des Plaines and Northbrook, Illinois. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is all about a day trip to downtown Chicago, complete with a Cubs game and a trip to the Art Institute. 

6. Popcorn is the official state snackfood. The state is one of the nation’s leading producers of popcorn, and in 2003 it was voted the official state snackfood, thanks to lobbying by a group of second and third graders

7. Some parts of the state are very Normal—the main campus of Illinois State University, for example, is located in Normal, Illinois, in the center of the state. 

8. It has its own Grand Canyon. The Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois boasts the Little Grand Canyon, a deep canyon formed by the Big Muddy River. Shawnee is the state’s only national forest. 

9. Chicago has more lines of railroad track radiating out from the city in different directions than any other city. From the late 1850s through the early 20th century, almost all freight and people traveling by train across the country had to pass through Chicago.  

Chicago railroads in 1911. Image Credit: The Chicago Association of Commerce Committee of Investigation on Smoke Abatement and Electrification of Railway Terminals via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

10. Before it became a state, it demanded a lakefront. Originally, the northern border of the state would have cut off Illinois from any access to Lake Michigan. Later, a congressional committee discussing Illinois’ 1818 promotion from territory to state suggested that the northern boundary of the state extend straight west from the Indiana state line. However, the Illinois Territory’s congressional delegate successfully lobbied to push the border some 50 miles further north to give the state more shoreline and a port at Chicago—and profitable valuable access to the Erie Canal, which had just begun construction the year before. 

11. It hosted a Mormon utopia for a few years in the 1800s. In 1838, members of the Church of Latter Day Saints were driven out of Missouri, resettling in Illinois. Church founder Joseph Smith founded a new town called Nauvoo, a Mormon community that quickly became one of the state’s largest cities. After Smith’s assassination in 1844, his followers set out to find refuge farther west, eventually landing in Salt Lake City. 

12. The origins of its name are debated. French explorers and settlers called the Native American tribes who lived in the central Mississippi Valley the Illinois Indians. According to several sources, including the website of the state attorney general, the name “comes from a Native American word meaning ‘tribe of superior men.’” However, according to scholars of indigenous American languages [PDF], it actually traces back to the Illinois word "irenweewa," meaning “he speaks in the ordinary way." Eventually, this merged into another indigenous language as “ilinwe,” which French travelers made “Illinois.” 

13. It has deep roots in jazz history. The Great Migration brought thousands of Black southerners north to Chicago, where they settled on the South Side. These southern transplants—including Louis Armstrong—brought jazz talent from New Orleans. Chicago became the go-to destination for the best musicians to perform and record.  

Jazz legend Louis Armstrong, who moved to Chicago from New Orleans in 1922. He lived in the city off and on for much of his career. World-Telegram staff photographer, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

14. It’s the start of Route 66. The historic highway begins in downtown Chicago before continuing across Illinois and down to Missouri on its way to California. 

15. It’s incredibly flat. A 2014 study found that the prairies and farmlands of Illinois are flatter than every other state except Florida, thanks to ancient glaciers. The highest natural point in the state, a hill called the Charles Mound, is 1,235 feet above sea level—slightly lower than the Willis Tower. 

16. It has a (now inactive) giant underground particle accelerator. Before the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory shut down its particle accelerator, the Tevatron, in 2011, it was the country’s largest particle accelerator, and the world’s second-most-powerful behind the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. 

17. Chicago has one of the oldest NFL teams in the nation. The Bears were once the Decatur Staleys, a founding team of the NFL hailing from Decatur, Illinois. Only one other team has been around since the league’s founding: the Arizona Cardinals, who originally played in Chicago. 

18. It has its own indie folk album. In 2005, Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, an entire album devoted to places, people, and history of the state. He had previously released an album about his home state of Michigan. 

19. It’s one of the only states that celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day. The day, honoring Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski, who was a Polish immigrant, is a state holiday in Illinois, which has an particularly large Polish population. The state holds its memorial on the first Monday in March, in honor of the general’s birthday. Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Indiana also observe it. The federal government observes General Pulaski Memorial Day in October, in honor of the general’s death day. 

Casimir Pulaski. Image Credit: Marcin K. via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

20. Young culinary students can drink there. Per the state’s liquor code, amended in 2012, someone under the age of 21 (but over the age of 18) can taste but “not imbibe” as long as they’re doing it as part of a culinary course. 

21. It’s the Land of Lincoln, but two other presidents have launched their political careers there: Ulysses S. Grant and Barack Obama. And though Ronald Reagan is known as a California politician, he was born and raised in northwest Illinois. 

22. It birthed the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s. Jimmy John Liautaud founded the first restaurant in 1983 in Charleston, Illinois, near the campus of Eastern Illinois University. 

23. One of its nicknames is the Sucker State. There are several theories as to how this sobriquet came about. The name might also refer to the migration patterns of 1820s lead miners, who would come north in the warmer months to work in the mines of Galena, Illinois, then return south for the winter, like sucker fish in the Mississippi River. Or, it might be a reference to the sprouts of tobacco plants, called suckers, referencing the southern migrants who came to Illinois to get away from the plantation system. Regardless, it appeared on this 1884 map made by an Illinois-based pork company, with a crassly named pig for every state. 

Image Credit: Library of Congress

24. It once hosted the windmill capital of the world. Batavia, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, was the home of several major windmill producers at the turn of the century. The U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company factory there was once the largest manufacturer of windmills in the world

25. It was home to America’s largest prehistoric city. In 1250 CE, Cahokia—just a few miles over the Illinois border from what is now St. Louis—was larger than London. It was inhabited as early as 700 CE and abandoned around 1300 CE. 

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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13 Secrets From the Guinness Archives
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Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Guinness has been a staple in Irish pubs for nearly 260 years. With so much history, it's no surprise that the Guinness Storehouse Archives—which are open to the public—are stuffed with intriguing artifacts that tell some pretty wild stories. Here are a few.

1. THE LEASE TO THE DUBLIN BREWERY WAS INTENDED TO LAST 9000 YEARS.

In 1759, founder Arthur Guinness signed a lease for a four-acre property at St. James’s Gate in Dublin. The lease required a down payment of £100, an annual rent of £45, and a term of 9000 years (not a typo). Such lengthy leases were relatively common back then: “At the time in Ireland, there was a lot of instability to do with land tenure,” explains Fergus Brady, Archives Manager at Guinness. Centuries earlier, the British had begun confiscating land from native Irish in an effort to build plantations, and extra-long leases were a means of avoiding this fate. As Brady explains, “You see these really long leases: 99-year or 999-year leases. It seemed to be a legal custom at the time that they used the number nine.”

2. ARTHUR GUINNESS WAS NOT AFRAID TO DEFEND HIS PROPERTY WITH A PICKAXE.

In 1775, the Dublin Corporation—that is, the city government—demanded that Arthur Guinness pay for the spring water flowing to his brewery. When Guinness argued that he was already paying for water rights through his 9000-year rental agreement, the Dublin Corporation sent a sheriff and a committee to his brewery to cut off the water supply. Guinness was livid. He seized a pickaxe and unleashed a torrent of obscenities so colorful that the Dublin Corporation’s goons eventually retreated.

3. GUINNESS ONCE DEPLOYED FIELD AGENTS TO CATCH COUNTERFEITERS.

Guinness Apology
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In the 19th century, there was no such thing as brand consistency. Guinness did not bottle its own beer; instead, it shipped the suds in wooden casks to publicans who supplied their own bottles and applied their own personalized labels. Occasionally, these publicans sold fake or adulterated Guinness. To prevent such sales, the company sent special agents called “travellers” into the field to collect beer samples, which it tested in a laboratory. “If a publican was found to be serving adulterated or counterfeit Guinness, they had to give a public apology in their local newspaper—and even the national newspapers,” archivist Jessica Handy says.

4. FOR 21 YEARS, THE COMPANY HIRED A GUY TO TRAVEL THE WORLD AND DRINK BEER.

In 1899, Guinness hired an American ex-brewer named Arthur T. Shand to be a “Guinness World Traveller.” It was arguably the coolest job in the world. For 21 years, Shand traveled the world taste-testing beer. According to Brady, “His job was to travel the world and taste Guinness, say whether it was good or bad, who our bottlers in the market were, who our major competition was, what kind of people were drinking our product.” Shand traveled to Australia and New Zealand, to Southeast Asia and Egypt. “He was sort of a Guinness sommelier,” Brady says.

5. THE COMPANY'S HARP LOGO CAUSED TROUBLE WITH THE IRISH GOVERNMENT.

The Celtic harp—based on the 14th century “Brian Boru Harp” preserved at Trinity College—became a trademarked Guinness logo in 1876. Forty-five years later, when Ireland gained independence from England, the Irish Free State decided to use the same Celtic harp as its official state emblem. This became awkward. Guinness owned the trademark, and the Irish government was forced to search for a workaround. You can find their solution on an Irish Euro coin. Look at the coin, and you’ll notice that the harp’s straight edge faces the right; meanwhile, the harp on a glass of Guinness shows the straight edge facing left [PDF].

6. GUINNESS REPORTEDLY SAVED LIVES ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

The old slogan “Guinness is good for you” sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it was born out of a genuine belief that the beer was, in fact, a restorative tonic. The health claim dates back to 1815, when an ailing cavalry officer wounded at the Battle of Waterloo reportedly credited Guinness for his recovery. For decades, the medical community widely claimed that the dark beer possessed real health benefits—and they weren’t necessarily wrong. “There was little safe drinking water at the time,” Handy says. “But with brewing, consumers knew they were getting a safe beverage.”

7. THE COMPANY CREATED A SPECIAL RECIPE FOR CONVALESCENTS.

A label for Guinness invalid stout
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Guinness produced a special “Nourishing Export Stout”—a.k.a. “Invalid Stout”—that contained extra sugars, alcohol, and solids and came in cute one-third pint bottles. “It was very common practice for people to buy a couple bottles and keep them as a tonic, even if it was just a glass or half a glass,” Handy says. In fact, Guinness went as far as asking general practitioners for testimonials attesting to the beer’s medical benefits. According to Brady, “Many of them wrote back and said yes, we prescribe this for various ailments.” One doctor even claimed a pint was “as nourishing as a glass of milk.”

8. DOCTORS REGULARLY PRESCRIBED THE BEER TO NURSING MOTHERS.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, many physicians believed Guinness was an effective galactagogue—that is, a lactation aid. The company sent bottles to hospitals as well as wax cartons of yeast (which supposedly helped skin problems and migraines). Hundreds, possibly thousands, of doctors prescribed the beer for ailments such as influenza, insomnia, and anxiety, David Hughes writes in A Bottle of Guinness Please: The Colourful History of Guinness. According to Brady, the company was sending beer to hospitals as late as the 1970s.

9. THE COMPANY ONCE DROPPED 200,000 MESSAGES-IN-A-BOTTLE INTO THE OCEAN.

A Guinness message in a bottle
The message within every bottle dropped in the Atlantic Ocean in 1959.
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In 1954, Guinness dumped 50,000 messages-in-a-bottle in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 1959, they repeated the stunt again, with 38 ships dropping 150,000 bottles in the Atlantic. The first bottle was discovered in the Azores off Portugal just three months after the initial drop [PDF]. Since then, the bottles have turned up in California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Just last year, a bottle was discovered in Nova Scotia. (If you find one, you just might be offered a trip to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.)

10. THE PERSONNEL FILES IN THE GUINNESS ARCHIVES CONTAIN SOME DOOZIES.

The Guinness corporate archives are open to the public. According to Handy, “Some of the stories you get in there are amazing, because you get accident reports and you get crazy stories of people bouncing on bags of hops outside the brewery." This may sound less surprising considering that, back in the day, Guinness employees were given an allowance of two pints of beer every day [PDF].

11. A GUINNESS SCIENTIST MADE A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MARK IN THE FIELD OF STATISTICS.

If you’ve taken a statistics class, you might be familiar with the Student’s t-test or the t-statistic. (It’s a method of working with a small sample size when the standard deviation is unknown.) The t-test was first described by William S. Gosset, a brewer and statistician at Guinness who was attempting to analyze a small sample of malt extract. Gosset’s discovery not only helped Guinness create a more consistent-tasting beer, it would lay the bedrock for one of the most important concepts in statistics: statistical significance.

12. GUINNESS IS SO BIG IN AFRICA, IT LAUNCHED A SUCCESSFUL FEATURE-LENGTH FILM.

Guinness began exporting beer to Africa in 1827. In the 1960s, it opened a brewery in Nigeria—followed by Cameroon and Ghana. Today, there are reportedly more Guinness drinkers in Nigeria than there are in Ireland. “In Ireland, England, and the United States, everybody thinks that Guinness is synonymous with Ireland,” Brady says. “But in Nigeria, there’s a very very low conception of that.” The beer is such a cultural staple that a fictional character who advertised the product named Michael Power—a James Bond-like, crime-fighting journalist—became the star of a feature film in 2003 called Critical Assignment, which was a box office smash. (Of course, there’s some branding built into the script. As Brady explains, “There are definitely scenes where Michael Power is enjoying a pint of Guinness.”)

13. DISPENSING BEER WITH NITROGEN WAS ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED LAUGHABLE.

In the 1950s, Guinness scientist Michael Ash was tasked with solving the “draft problem.” At the time, dispensing a draft pint of Guinness was ridiculously complicated, and the company was losing market share to draft lagers in Britain that could be easily dispensed with CO2. “The stout was too lively to be dispensed with CO2 only,” Brady says. “Ash worked on the problem for four years, working long hours day or night, and became a bit of a recluse apparently. A lot of doubters at the brewery called the project ‘daft Guinness.’” But then Ash attempted dispensing the beer with plain air. It worked. The secret ingredient, Ash discovered, was nitrogen. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen. Today, a Guinness draft contains 75 percent nitrogen. Not only did the discovery make dispensing the beer easier, it created a creamy mouthfeel that’s been the signature of Irish stouts since.

Full disclosure: Guinness paid for the author to attend an International Stout Day festival in 2017, which provided the opportunity to speak to their archivists.

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