CLOSE
Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Neat Facts About Nebraska

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

From Charles Lindbergh's first flying lessons to Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, a lot of big things have come from small towns in Nebraska—and those are just a couple of the many things you probably didn't know about the Cornhusker State.

1. The city that would become Nebraska’s capital was originally named Lancaster, after the town in Pennsylvania. It was renamed to honor Abraham Lincoln after his assassination, but there was also an ulterior motive. There was talk of moving the state capital from Omaha to Lancaster in 1867, and because much of the state had supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, a Nebraska legislator who wanted to keep the capital in Omaha decided to “honor” Lincoln by renaming Lancaster. He was also counting on Confederate sympathizers to vote against moving the state capital to a town named after the man who ended slavery. His plan failed.

2. Remember that little yellow-and-black booklet that got you through Julius Caesar? You have a Nebraskan to thank for those. Clifton Hillegass was a manager at Nebraska Book Company in 1958, when he bought a series of notes on Shakespeare from a Canadian book company owner named Jack Cole. Hillegass expanded the idea well beyond the Bard and eventually changed the name from “Cole’s Notes” to “CliffsNotes.”

3. Covering 1.5 acres, the eight-story-tall Lied Jungle at the Henry Doorly Zoo is the largest indoor rainforest in the U.S. You’ll find everything from pygmy hippos to Malayan tapirs and capuchin monkeys.

4. The Nebraska Cornhuskers’ football stadium holds more than 90,000 people. On game day, that makes it the third most populated place in the state, second only to Omaha (434,000) and Lincoln (268,000). Coming in a distant fourth is Bellevue, Nebraska, with a population of approximately 54,000.

BobakHa'Eri via Wikimedia Commons //CC BY 3.0

5. Before their distinctive nickname stuck, the University of Nebraska’s football team was known as the Old Gold Knights, the Antelopes, the Rattlesnake Boys, and the Bugeaters. Apparently tired of referring to his team as “the Bugeaters," a Nebraska sportswriter borrowed "Cornhusker," a term used by a team in the neighboring state of Iowa. But no hard feelings—Iowa seemed to prefer “the Hawkeyes” anyway.

6. Arbor Day started in 1854 with a pioneer named J. Sterling Morton. An agriculture enthusiast, Morton immediately saw the need for more trees on the prairie when he moved from Detroit to Nebraska. By 1872, he had convinced the State Board of Agriculture to promote a day for everyone to plant trees “both forest and fruit.” The first Arbor Day was celebrated that year with more than a million trees planted in Nebraska alone.

7. You can still see evidence of Oregon Trail travelers. The wagon roadbed is still visible at Scotts Bluff National Monument, though the actual ruts were lost to erosion a long time ago. You can also hike about a half-mile on the actual route.

8. Speaking of Oregon Trail landmarks, one of them seems to be dwindling due to erosion. Chimney Rock, a prominent rock formation near Bayard, Nebraska, was another important marker for the covered wagon set. It’s a good thing the the geologic wonder has been preserved on the state quarter, because it’s not quite as impressive as it once was, having lost more than 30 feet in the past 150 years. 

U.S. National Archives and Records Administrationvia Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

9. If you’ve always wanted to see 39 automobiles arranged like Stonehenge, you’re in luck. Alliance, Nebraska, is home to just such a site. "Carhenge" is the brainchild of artist Jim Reinders, who made the sculpture to honor his deceased father. "It took a lot of blood, sweat, and beers," Reinders said.

Stacy Conradt

10. Berkshire Hathaway and its chairman, Warren Buffett, are both based out of Omaha—and neither will be leaving anytime soon. "There's plenty of other places I like, but the one I love is Omaha," Buffett said. "The weather may be a little better some other place else, but that really doesn't make much difference to me in terms of how I feel about enjoying life."

11. Nebraska doesn’t have an official state food, but if it did, Runzas would be the winner. Runza is a fast food chain whose bread and butter, so to speak, is ground beef and cabbage. The stinky combo is stuffed into a pastry shell and served hot. The whole thing is called a “Runza,” and it's beloved by Nebraskans. Runza's 82 restaurants are almost exclusively in the Cornhusker State, with just one in Colorado, two in Iowa, and two in Kansas.

12. While it doesn’t have an official state food, Nebraska does have an official state soft drink: Kool-Aid. Originally called “Fruit Smack,” Kool-Aid was invented by a man named Edwin Perkins who ran a small mail-order business out of Hastings, Nebraska. Though the Fruit Smack concentrate syrup was one of his most popular products, the glass bottles often broke in transit. Perkins invented a powder concentrate in 1927 to solve the problem, and Kool-Aid was born.

Nehrams2020 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

13. First known as the “Old Glory Blowout,” Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was formed in the little town of North Platte, Nebraska. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s home there, Scout’s Ranch, still stands. Buffalo Bill State Historical Park now encompasses 25 of the original 4000 acres Cody owned.

14. Nebraska has the only unicameral legislature in the United States, meaning that it has a single-house system. It’s also nonpartisan—there are no party affiliations listed on voting ballots.

15. If the Ogallala Aquifer was spread evenly across the U.S., it would cover all 50 states with 1.5 feet of water. But the underground reservoir is disappearing fast, and once it’s gone, it’s gone: Scientists estimate it will take more than 6000 years to refill naturally.

16. You can thank Nebraska for the Reuben sandwich. Though its origins are hotly disputed, one of the most likely stories is this: In 1927, chef Bernard Schimmel was working at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha. Schimmel’s father played poker with some buddies at the hotel every Sunday night, and one night, a player named Reuben Kulakofsky asked the younger Schimmel for a sandwich with sauerkraut and corned beef. Rather than just slapping the requested items on some white bread, Schimmel combined the sauerkraut with Thousand Island dressing, then layered it with corned beef and Swiss cheese sandwiched between dark rye bread. It was such a hit that the Blackstone added it to the menu. Sadly, history remembers the sandwich as a Reuben instead of a Bernard.

17. Charles Lindbergh took his first flying lessons at the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation flying school in Lincoln in 1922. He paid $300 [PDF] for 10 hours of instruction—a small fortune at the time. His instructors realized that Lucky Lindy was a natural, and let him eschew the last few flying lessons for parachute jumping practice.

18. The state is home to Archie, the biggest mammoth on display anywhere. This 14-foot fossil was found in 1922 by a rancher in Lincoln County. He turned Archie over to the University of Nebraska State Museum where he still lives today. The creature's name, by the way, comes from his scientific classification, Archidiskodon imperator maibeni.

19. A law written in the village of Lehigh back in the late 1800s forbade merchants from selling doughnut holes. A chairman of the village board said that “old-timers” considered them waste and believed bakers were selling the middle parts of the doughnut to make undue profit. Though the law was repealed in the 1990s, the delicious treats are still apparently hard to come by in Lehigh.

iStockphoto

20. It’s a landlocked state, but Nebraska does, in fact, have a Navy. It was commissioned in 1931 by Lt. Governor T.W. Metcalfe, who wanted to gift his friends with ridiculous and meaningless government appointments. The rank of Admiral is awarded to people who have “contributed in some way to the state, promote the Good Life in Nebraska, and warrant recognition as determined by the governor. Admirals include Queen Elizabeth II, Captain Kangaroo, Big Bird, Dr. J., John Glenn, and Bill Murray (obviously).

21. The whole Navy thing is actually kind of appropriate, because "Nebraska" is derivative of Native American words for "flat water" or "great water." They were referring to the Platte River, a wide, shallow river that spans the length of the state..

22. Roy Rogers’ faithful horse, Trigger, died of natural causes in 1965—but you can still see him at RFD-TV in Omaha. Not a replica—the real Trigger. The stuffed and mounted horse was displayed at the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri, until 2010, when he was sold at auction where he brought in a whopping $266,500. RFD-TV uses Trigger for promotional events, along with Rogers’ dog, Bullet.

23. It wasn’t just Pearl Harbor that was hit during WWII. On April 18, 1945, a Japanese balloon bomb exploded in the sky over Dundee, a section of Omaha. Fortunately, it didn’t do much damage, and the attempt was kept hush-hush until after the war was over.

24. Leslie Lynch King, Jr. was born in Nebraska. Who? Oh, right—you probably know him better as Gerald Ford. Ford’s mother, Dorothy, left his abusive biological father when the future president was just two weeks old. Dorothy moved from Omaha to live with her parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she eventually met her second husband, Gerald Rudolff Ford. In 1935, her son changed his name to Gerald Rudolph Ford to honor the only father he ever knew.

25. There's a six-foot-tall statue of Chef Boyardee in Omaha. No, he’s not from there (and yes, he was a real person). Until recently, Omaha was home to the headquarters of ConAgra Foods, Inc., a business that includes brands like Healthy Choice, Jiffy Pop, Reddi-Wip, Slim Jim, and Chef Boyardee. The man behind the canned pasta mascot was actually Hector Boiardi, who was a renowned chef long before his face graced cans of Spaghetti-Os.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
iStock
iStock

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
iStock

Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
iStock

Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
iStock

Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
iStock

Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
iStock

Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
iStock

Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
iStock

In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
iStock

Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
iStock

Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
iStock

Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios