Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Brilliant Facts About North Carolina

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

With its sandy beaches, rolling mountains, and bustling cities, North Carolina has natural beauty, culture, and industry in spades. Here are 25 things you might not have known about the 12th state of the Union.

1. North Carolina’s most common nickname is the “Tar Heel State.” Historians don’t quite know how it got the moniker, but they think it might stem from the state’s legacy as a leading producer of tar, pitch, rosin, and turpentine. Other nicknames for North Carolina include the Old North State, the Land of the Sky, and the Rip Van Winkle State. 

2. The Wright Brothers tested various prototypes for a flying machine in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, because the remote location provided them with privacy, soft grounds, and steady winds. In 1903, the siblings finally achieved their dream of building a heavier-than-air flying machine with their Wright Flyer. Today, North Carolina license plates boast that their state was “First In Flight”—a claim that rankles Ohio residents, who argue that the Wright Brothers mostly lived and worked in their state.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

3. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Billy Taylor, and Nina Simone are just a sampling of legendary jazz artists who were born in North Carolina.

4. Speaking of musicians, more American Idol finalists are from North Carolina than any other state. A few ordinary Tarheels whose lives were changed after they appeared on the hit reality TV show include Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino, and Chris Daughtry. 

5. Asheville, North Carolina, is a mecca for craft beer lovers. According to one recent report, the mountain getaway boasts the largest number of breweries per capita of any city in the United States, including Wicked Weed Brewing, Green Man Brewery, and Highland Brewing Company

6. Asheville is also home to America’s largest mansion, the Biltmore Estate, which was built by wealthy railroad scion George Washington Vanderbilt II in the late 19th century. Tourists from across the world flock to the 255-room abode to enjoy its winery, lush gardens, and French chateau-inspired architecture. 

7. North Carolina’s state song is “The Old North State,” its state bird is the cardinal, and its state motto is Esse quam videri, which means “To be, rather than to seem.” 

8. Founded in 1798, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is the nation’s oldest public university—according to UNC, at least. (The University of Georgia and The College of William & Mary also lay claim to the title.)

9. In 1954, a Fayetteville, North Carolina resident named Don Clayton created Putt-Putt golf as a no-frills alternative to windmill-filled, obstacle-ridden mini-golf courses.

10. In 1893, one of the world’s most famous soft drinks was born in New Bern, North Carolina. A drugstore clerk named Caleb Bradham invented Pepsi, which he originally called “Brad’s Drink.” The former doctor-in-training believed his syrupy concoction aided digestion, and re-named the drink “Pepsi-Cola ” in 1898 after the word “dyspepsia.”  

11. Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore, but he made history in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when he hit his first professional home run on March 7, 1914. 

12. U.S. Presidents James K. Polk, Andrew Jackson, and Andrew Johnson were all from North Carolina

13. Dellview, North Carolina is North Carolina’s smallest municipality, and is considered to be one of America’s tiniest incorporated towns. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it had only 13 residents as of 2010. 

14. North Carolina’s Outer Banks are beautiful for tourists, but deadly for sailors. The region is nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” thanks to a series of sandbars and strong currents that have sent countless ships to a watery grave. According to records, more than 1000 vessels have sunk in the region since 1526.

15. North Carolina’s coast was also a favorite haunt of the infamous pirate Blackbeard. The outlaw spent years plundering ships and holding hostages for ransom before he was finally killed by British naval forces in a battle off Ocracoke Island in 1718. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

16. On November 21, 1789, North Carolina became the 12th state to join the Union—and as of May 20, 1861, it became the tenth state to secede from it

17. Thanks to its rich land and mild climate, North Carolina produces more sweet potatoes than any other state in the nation. 

18. If North Carolina ever runs out of sweet potatoes, it still has its Christmas tree industry. The state produces between 15 and 20 percent of the nation's real Christmas trees, including the popular North Carolina Fraser fir [PDF]. 

19. For centuries, historians have been captivated by the lost English colony of Roanoke Island. In 1587, the colony was established by the English gentleman Sir Walter Raleigh, and was settled by a group of 117 men, women, and children. After three months, the colony’s governor, John White, made the trip back to England for supplies. Thanks to the country’s war with Spain, Britain was short on ships, and White’s return was delayed. When he came back to Roanoke Island three years later, he found that its inhabitants had mysteriously disappeared. The only trace he found of the colonists were the word “cro” etched into a tree, and “croatan” carved into a fence post. 

20. High Point, North Carolina, is known as a major furniture manufacturing city. Thanks to this credential, it's branded itself as the "Furniture Capital of the World." 

21. On average, North Carolina is hit by a hurricane every 3.44 yearsIs it any wonder, then, that Raleigh's professional ice hockey team is called the Carolina Hurricanes

22. North Carolina's state capital is Raleigh. With an estimated population of 439,896 people, it's smaller than Charlotte, North Carolina, which has more than 800,000 residents. However, data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that both urban areas rank among America's fastest-growing cities. 

23. Three prominent universities—the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina State University—anchor what's known as the Research Triangle, an area in the state's Piedmont region. It's home to Research Triangle Park, which was founded in 1959 to encourage top students to find local jobs. One of the largest research parks in the world, it boasts multiple companies and institutions, including Cisco, the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

24. If you're visiting North Carolina and you're not a beach person, just head inland. Multiple sub-ranges of the Appalachian Mountains—including the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains—stretch across the state's western region. 

25. In 1937, a man named Vernon Rudolph established the small, Winston-Salem-based business that would eventually balloon into one of the world's biggest pastry behemoths: Krispy Kreme doughnuts. 

A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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