Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Fascinating Facts About South Carolina

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Though it's often clumped together with its neighbor to the north, South Carolina boasts its own unique history, cultures, and way of life. Before your next visit, file away these 25 facts about SC:

1. Today it's known as the Palmetto State, but at one time, South Carolina's license plates read “The Iodine State.” The motto was an effort by the South Carolina Natural Resources Commission to publicize the high levels of the chemical element found in the state’s fruits and vegetables. Thankfully, it did not stick.

2. The state motto, which appears on its seal, is the Latin phrase “Dum spiro, spero,” which translates to “While I breathe, I hope.” The seal also bears the phrase “Animis opibusque parati,” which means “Prepared in mind and resources."

3. The highest point in the state, Sassafras Mountain, is around 3560 feet at its summit, whilce the state’s coastal plains, known as the “lowcountry,” are of course just at or barely above sea level.

4. The smallest town in the state is a patch of land in the northwest called Smyrna. The entire town is only around .7 square miles, and according to the 2010 Census Summary, the population hovers around 45 people.

5. Charleston has earned the nickname “The Holy City” because there are more than 400 places of worship representing several denominations across the city. 

6. At 297 feet tall, St. Matthew's Lutheran Church is the tallest structure in the city of Charleston. At one point, it was also the tallest structure in the state.

7. On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began at Fort Sumter in South Carolina when Confederate soldiers opened fire on the Union soldiers guarding the sea fort. The conflict that followed has been called the “bloodiest four years in American history.” The fort is now a national monument and popular tourist destination.

8. The popular '90s Nickelodeon television show, Gullah Gullah Island, was filmed on South Carolina's St. Helena Island and was inspired by a real culture. The Gullah people are descendants of African slaves living in the coastal areas of the Southeast, stretching from Pender County, North Carolina down to St. Johns County, Florida. The show’s polliwog mascot, Binyah Binyah, gets his name from the Gullah word meaning “been here” and signifies someone who is a native of the area. Although the creators of the show have said that it was not specifically “about Gullah culture,” they paid homage to the language and cultural traditions of the Gullah people, while also celebrating the region's diversity.

9. There are no major sports teams based in South Carolina, but that doesn’t mean that the state hasn’t produced some amazing athletes. Legendary tennis player Althea Gibson, boxing champion Joe Frazier, and future NBA Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett were all born in the Palmetto State.

10. There is a town in South Carolina named Due West, and you can probably guess where it is geographically. There are also real towns called Quarantine, Wide Awake, and Climax.

11. Bishopville, South Carolina, is home to The Button Museum, the brainchild of one Dalton Stevens. A lifelong insomniac, one night in 1983, Stevens decided to while the hours away by sewing buttons on to one of his suits. Two years later, he had successfully attached more than 16,000 buttons to the garment. Stevens kept his project going, adding buttons to all kinds of bizarre objects. Today, the fruits of his labor—including a button-covered hearse—can be viewed in a hangar he rents off of SC-41.   

12. There are over 4000 rhesus monkeys on Morgan Island (also called Monkey Island). Around 750 monkeys are born there each year, but the island is not a cute tourist attraction. The only humans that are allowed there are the researchers who tag and use the growing population for AIDS research and other kinds of scientific testing.

13. “America’s First Museum” was started by the Charleston Library Society in 1773, 12 years before the nation’s first public museum opened in Philadelphia. The Charleston Museum would not open to the public until 1824.

14. The town of Sumter is home to the world's largest commercial gingko farm

15. The Shag, not the Charleston, was designated the official state dance in 1984.

16. Tattooing was illegal in South Carolina until 2004. To get inked legally, residents had to drive out of state to nearby Georgia or North Carolina. In the decade since the law was changed, more than 100 parlors have been established across the state.

17. In 2014, an eight-year-old girl wrote a letter to her state senator suggesting that the wooly mammoth become the official state fossil. Despite the fact that some creationists took issue, the measure was passed in May of that year.

18. There are more peaches produced in South Carolina than in Georgia (the so-called Peach State). In the town of Gaffney, there is a landmark water tower shaped like a giant peach that was built in the 1980s to honor the region’s peach farmers (and to hold water, of course). The peach made national news when locals and tourists who had seen it in an episode of House of Cards mistook site renovations for a complete demolition.
 

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19. South Carolinians have their own lake monster, affectionately dubbed "Messie." The creature supposedly resides in Lake Murray; the South Carolina Fish and Wildlife Department reportedly has a file full of Messie sightings, from "reputable" citizens who were "not on drugs or drinking" when they spotted the beast.

20. When it opened in 2005, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge that connects downtown Charleston and the town of Mount Pleasant was the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America. The bridge is 1546 feet long and cost $540 million to build. It was dethroned in 2011 by the John James Audubon Bridge in Louisiana.

21. Snow in South Carolina is very rare: On average, the state receives less than an inch each year. When there is snowfall, chaos reigns. For example? In 2014, a state of emergency was issued by governor Nikki Haley ahead of a winter storm that the National Weather Service forecasted would bring a quarter inch of ice and between 2 and 3 inches of snow to parts of the state. 

22. The worst earthquake on record in South Carolina occurred on August 31, 1886. Believed to have been a 7.6 on the Richter scale, the quake killed more than 100 people and leveled much of Charleston. The damage done totaled an estimated $5.5 million—around $136 million today.

23. When the aliens show up, Bowman resident Jody Pendarvis will be ready. Pendarvis has built a large "UFO Welcome Center" in his backyard, in case any extra terrestrials decide to park their ships in Orangeburg County. 

24. Hogna carolinensis, also known as the Carolina wolf spider, is the largest wolf spider in North America and has been the state spider of South Carolina since 2000. Despite its name, the spiders are found in much of the United States (save for the Pacific Northwest) and even down into Mexico.

25. The largest living cat, according to Guinness World Records, is an adult male liger (half lion, half tiger) named Hercules who lives at the Myrtle Beach Safari wildlife reserve. The cat weighs over 900 pounds, is 12 feet tall when standing on his hind legs, and eats 100 pounds of meat each day.

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Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Mailed Acorns to World Leaders
 Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a big year in 1969. Following a quick wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, they hopped over to Amsterdam and used their honeymoon suite at the Hilton as a stage for their week-long “Bed-In for Peace” protest against the Vietnam War. A week later they were in Vienna wearing bags over their bodies and declaring the formation of a comical new philosophy called “bagism." Their goal, they said, was to promote "total communication" by getting people to focus on their message instead of their skin color, ethnicity, clothes, or in Lennon's case, hair length.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with a sign reading "bagism"
Bob Aylott, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These attention-grabbing antics were among their most famous peace efforts, but that same year they undertook a very different project. This time, away from the cameras, Lennon and Ono mailed acorns to some of the world's most important leaders and asked that they be planted in support of world peace.

The idea had been a year in the making. While filming a part for a movie called A Love Story on June 15, 1968, Lennon and Ono planted two acorns at England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during WWII and was later rebuilt as a symbol of peace. They were “planted in east and westerly positions,” symbolizing the union of Lennon and Ono and their respective cultures.

Then, in 1969, they decided to scale up their "peace acorn" project. Along with two acorns placed in a small, round case, they sent world leaders a letter that read: “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures—which are acorns—in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace. Yours with love, John and Yoko Ono Lennon.”

Like the proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the couple understood the power of small gestures and wanted to start a conversation that would get world leaders thinking about the possibility of peace—or in Lennon's words, to encourage them to "give peace a chance."

John and Yoko hold up a protest sign that says "War is over if you want it."
Frank Barratt, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

They did provoke some thought, at least. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained, “We got reaction to sending acorns—different heads of state actually planted their acorns, lots of them wrote to us answering about the acorns. We sent acorns to practically everybody in the world.”

The two acorns were “submitted to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] in due course,” according to a letter that the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace sent to the Lennons. A response from Malaysia confirmed that the acorns were to be planted in Kuala Lumpur’s Palace Gardens, and another letter from South Africa indicated that they would be planted on then-president Jim Fouché’s farm.

Golda Meir, then-prime minister of Israel, reportedly said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who they are but if it’s for peace, we’re for it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. An official response sent by Meir’s assistant director in 1970 read, “Mrs. Meir very much appreciated the gesture, the underlying symbolism of which she would indeed like to see take root within a realistic framework.”

One particularly polite response came from Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, who worried he had erred in addressing Lennon and Ono as Mr. and Mrs. (he hadn't). He wrote, “Dear Sir and Madam, I may have wrongly assumed the friendly donators of acorns are husband and wife, and would like to submit ‘preventive’ apologies, together with my sincerest thanks for their gift.”

Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event
Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event in 1960
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ono saved all of these letters, and photocopies can be viewed on her website. For his part, Lennon memorialized the event in The Beatles single "The Ballad of John and Yoko." In case you've ever wondered what the line "50 acorns tied in a sack" means, the verse in question references the events following their honeymoon and return to London:

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

To mark the 40th anniversary of the peace acorn offering in 2009, Ono recreated the act and sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Next year, for the 50th anniversary, it remains to be seen if the famous peace acorns will again make their way around the world. If you happen to be a president or the Queen, you might want to save a spot in your garden, just in case.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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