Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Well-Tuned Facts About Tennessee

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

If it weren't for America's 16th state, we wouldn't have cotton candy, Mountain Dew, or—gasp!—Dolly Parton. Below, 25 facts you should file away about Tennessee.

1. Mountain Dew was invented there. The popular neon soft drink was originally developed by brothers Ally and Barney Hartman as a mixer, something to cut the acrid taste of homemade moonshine. Pepsi bought the Hartman brothers' lemon-lime concoction in 1964.

Bellczar via WikimediaCommons // CC BY-SA 3.0

2. Theodore Roosevelt coined the Maxwell House slogan “good to the last drop” after tasting a cup of coffee in Nashville. Except he probably didn’t. And it may not have even been Maxwell House Coffee. Confused? Here’s the deal: For decades, Maxwell House has claimed that in October 1907, Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed a particularly amazing cup of their java at Andrew Jackson’s estate near Nashville. Upon finishing it, TR smacked his lips and said, “Ahhh... good to the last drop!” Now, if you think a perfect advertising campaign dropped from the lips of one of the most popular presidents ever sounds too good to be true, you’re likely right.

Though he was in Nashville in October 1907 and was known to enjoy vast quantities of coffee, there’s no proof that he uttered any such thing. What’s more, the now-defunct Fit-For-A-King coffee once claimed the coffee Teddy enjoyed that day was actually their brand, and what he really said was, “This is the kind of stuff I like to drink, by George, when I hunt bears!” 

3. Tennesseans are sometimes referred to as “Butternuts.” The seemingly odd nickname dates back to the Civil War, when soldiers from the state wore tan uniforms that resembled the color of the winter squash.

4. Residents are often also called “Volunteers,” and the state nickname is “The Volunteer State.” That story also has wartime origins—so many men from the area fought in the War of 1812 that newspapers referred to them as “the volunteers from Tennessee.” The name caught on.

5. Love a good game of putt-putt? Thank a Tennessean. Garnet Carter patented “Tom Thumb Golf” in the late 1920s. While other putting greens and mini courses existed before then, Carter’s was the first to incorporate small obstacles like gnomes and hollowed out tree trunks, which were meant to complement his “Fairyland Inn” in Chattanooga.

6. Another concoction from Chattanooga: The MoonPie. Legend has it that the marshmallowy treat was invented in 1917 after the owner of the Chattanooga Bakery asked a coal miner what kind of snack he’d like to pack in his lunchbox. Something with graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow, the miner said. Then the baker wondered how big the pastry should be. The miner held his hands up to the sky and framed the moon.

Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

7. Motorists traveling through the Cherokee National Forest may find themselves passing through the so-called Shortest Tunnel in the World. Backbone Rock in the Appalachian Mountains stood between a train route from Damascus, Virginia, and Shady Valley, Tennessee, so workers blasted a hole in the rock in 1901. They realized after the fact that they had forgotten to leave room for a train’s smokestack and had to hand-chisel enough space for it to pass through. It did the trick, and soon, the Beaver Dam Railroad was able to haul 100,000 boards every day for the Tennessee Lumber and Manufacturing Company. The train route eventually closed, however, and the 20-foot tunnel was repurposed for the highway.

8. The cotton candy machine was invented by a dentist from Nashville. Perhaps trying to generate more cavities to fill, dentist William Morrison and candymaker John C. Wharton co-created the cotton candy machine in 1897. They debuted their device at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where it was an immediate hit: They sold 68,655 boxes for 25 cents each.

9. Up until recently, Patrick’s Pub and Grill in Copperhill, Tennessee, straddled the Tennessee/Georgia state line—and due to state laws, the Georgia side of the bar was dry. The layout of the pub also allowed people to grab a bite to eat in Tennessee, then pop over to Georgia to use the bathroom. The gimmick apparently wasn’t enough to keep the place open, however, and it closed sometime in 2015.

10. There have been so many songs written about Tennessee that it has 10 official state songs—including one state rap. The first song, “My Homeland, Tennessee,” was adopted in 1925. “Rocky Top,” arguably the most famous, was adopted in 1982. Here’s Dolly Parton’s rendition:

11. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the U.S. With more than 10 million visitors per year, it bests the Grand Canyon (4.8 million), Yosemite (4 million), and even Yellowstone (3.5 million).

12. President James K. Polk and First Lady Sarah Polk are buried at the state capitol building, mostly because no one knew what else to do with them. When Polk died in 1849, he was buried on the grounds at Polk Place, his estate in Nashville. But not long after First Lady Sarah Polk passed away in 1891, the heirs to Polk Place sold the grounds to a developer. The bodies had to go somewhere, so someone suggested that the government do something to honor the 11th president. State officials found a spot for the Polks on the capitol grounds.

Stacy Conradt

13. You probably know the opening lyrics to the Davy Crockett song, even if you don’t know a single word after that. That first line, “Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee” is partially true—David Crockett really was born in what is now Tennessee, but it wasn’t a state at the time. And his birthplace wasn’t on a mountaintop, but on a relatively flat stretch of land. But what might be most surprising to some people is that Davy Crockett was a real person, not an American tall tale. Crockett represented Tennessee in the U.S. House of Representatives before dying during the defense of the Alamo in 1836.

14. Memphis is home to one of the five most-visited private homes in the United States. Elvis Presley’s former home, Graceland, hosts more than 500,000 visitors annually. Tourism varies by year, but Graceland is usually second only to the White House, which often sees more than 100,000 visitors every month.


15. Tennessee hosts the world’s longest-running radio show—you probably know it better as the Grand Ole Opry. The show went on the air as the “WSM Barn Dance” in 1925. It was later deemed “The Grand Ole Opry” by show host George Hay, and it’s still on the air more than 90 years later.

16. At 4.5 acres, the Lost Sea in the Craighead Caverns near Sweetwater, Tennessee, is the largest non-subglacial underground lake in the U.S. Visitors can cross the lake in a glass-bottomed boat, but there’s no bottom in sight—in fact, there’s a large series of “rooms” connected underneath, and divers have yet to find the end of them.

17. It may come as no surprise that Tennessee is the birthplace of country music, but the genre's specific home isn't the town you think it is. In 1927, music producer Ralph Peer recorded more than 76 songs in downtown Bristol, Tennessee, in just 10 days, bringing in performers from around the Appalachian Mountain area. This included the Carter family, later declared the First Family of Country Music. Congress officially proclaimed Bristol the “Birthplace of Country Music” in 1998.

18. The state was once home to Tanasi, the capital of the Cherokee Nation from 1721 to 1730. The capital was eventually absorbed by the town of Chota, which then became the capital instead. The official site is now underwater, but a marker erected in 1989 pays homage to what once was. You can find it in McGee Carson Peninsula State Historic Park. And yes—the state may have been named after this village.

Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

19. Once upon a time, there was a copper mining operation in Ducktown, Tennessee. The environmental damage done at the site was so vast—23,000 acres of severely eroded and scorched earth—that it could be easily seen from space, allowing astronauts to use it as a landmark, along with the Great Wall of China and the pyramids in Egypt. Happily, the Tennessee Valley Authority stepped in to help reclaim the land. So far, their efforts have restored 11,025 of the 23,000 damaged acres, including the reintroduction of native fish and songbirds.

20. The three stars on the Tennessee flag are meant to represent the three Grand Divisions of the state: East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee. The white circle that surrounds them represents the unity of the divisions.

21. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is no secret now, but when it was founded in 1942, the entire town was kept under wraps. That’s because the city was formed for workers on the Manhattan Project, the secret military operation that resulted in the first nuclear weapons. Residents were fenced in, with guards stationed at every exit. The project was so cloaked in secrecy that many employees had no idea what they were working on until the bombs were dropped. The city was returned to civilian control two years after the war ended.

James Westcott via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

22. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The site is now a National Civil Rights Museum. Among the exhibits is the hotel’s original room 306, where King was staying when he was assassinated. A wreath on the balcony outside marks the spot where he fell.

23. In 1925, teacher John Scopes was fined $100 for teaching evolution in his Dayton, Tennessee classroom. The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, often referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, is one of the most famous court cases in history—and the whole thing was totally staged. Scopes had agreed to help “test” a new Tennessee law that prohibited teachers from including evolution in their curriculum. In the end, the Bible won, and evolution wasn’t brought back to the classroom until the 1960s.

24. You may not think of Tennessee as the epitome of the American melting pot, but Nashville has the largest Kurdish community in North America. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, more than 13,000 Kurds fleeing Iraq were drawn to the city’s low cost of living and high availability of jobs.

25. Kingston, Tennessee, was the state capital for a single day, the result of a dirty trick pulled by the early settlers. In 1805, the Cherokee agreed to a deal transferring thousands of acres to Tennessee settlers—as long as nearby Kingston was declared the state capital. Fine, the settlers said—and held a single Tennessee House of Representatives assembly there on September 21, 1807. The capital reverted to Knoxville the next day.

Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
14 Facts About Mathew Brady
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images

When you think of the Civil War, the images you think of are most likely the work of Mathew Brady and his associates. One of the most successful early photographers in American history, Brady was responsible for bringing images of the Civil War to a nation split in two—a project that would ultimately be his undoing. Here are some camera-ready facts about Mathew Brady.


Most details of Brady’s early life are unknown. He was born in either 1822 or 1823 to Andrew and Julia Brady, who were Irish. On pre-war census records and 1863 draft forms Brady stated that he was born in Ireland, but some historians speculate he changed his birthplace to Johnsburg, New York, after he became famous due to anti-Irish sentiment.

Brady had no children, and though he is believed to have married a woman named Julia Handy in 1851, there is no official record of the marriage.


When he was 16 or 17, Brady followed artist William Page to New York City after Page had given him some drawing lessons. But that potential career was derailed when he got work as a clerk in the A.T. Stewart department store [PDF] and began manufacturing leather (and sometimes paper) cases for local photographers, including Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of Morse Code.

Morse, who had learned the early photographic method of creating Daguerreotypes from Parisian inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839, brought the method back to the United States and opened a studio in 1840. Brady was one of his early students.


Brady eventually took what he learned from Morse and opened a daguerreotype portrait studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York in 1844, earning the nickname “Brady of Broadway.” His renown grew due to a mix of his knack for enticing celebrities to sit for his camera—James Knox Polk and a young Henry James (with his father, Henry James Sr.) both sat for him—as well as a flair for the dramatic: In 1856, he placed an ad in the New York Daily Tribune urging readers to sit for a portrait that warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”

His rapidly-expanding operation forced him to open a branch of his studio at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1849, and then move his New York studio uptown to 785 Broadway in 1860.


In 1850, Brady published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a collection of lithographs based on his daguerreotypes of a dozen famous Americans (he had intended to do 24, but due to costs, that never happened). The volume, and a feature profile [PDF] in the inaugural 1851 issue of the Photographic Art-Journal that described Brady as the “fountain-head” of a new artistic movement, made him a celebrity even outside of America. “We are not aware that any man has devoted himself to [the Daguerreotype art] with so much earnestness, or expended upon its development so much time and expense," the profile opined. "He has merited the eminence he has acquired; for, from the time he first began to devote himself to it, he has adhered to his early purpose with the firmest resolution, and the most unyielding tenacity.” Later that year, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Brady was awarded one of three gold medals for his daguerreotypes.


The one that got away was William Henry Harrison—he died only a month after his inauguration in 1841.


When Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president in 1860, he was dismissed as an odd-looking country bumpkin. But Brady’s stately portrait of the candidate, snapped after he addressed a Republican audience at Cooper Union in New York, effectively solidified Lincoln as a legitimate candidate in the minds of the American populace. (After he was elected, Lincoln supposedly told a friend, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.”) It was one of the first times such widespread campaign photography was used to support a presidential candidate.


A researcher holding one of America's most priceless negatives, the glass plate made by famous civil war photographer Mathew Brady of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 just before he was assassinated.
Three Lions, Getty Images

On February 9, 1864, Lincoln sat for a portrait session with Anthony Berger, the manager of Brady’s Washington studio. The session yielded both images of Lincoln that would go on the modern iterations of the $5 bill.

The first, from a three-quarter length portrait featuring Lincoln seated and facing right, was used on the bill design from 1914 to 2000. When U.S. currency was redesigned that year, government officials chose another image Berger took at Brady’s studio of Lincoln. This time, the president is seen facing left with his head turned more to the left.

According to Lincoln historian Lloyd Ostendorf, when the president was sitting for portraits, “Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required.”


At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Brady decided to use his many employees and his own money to attempt to make a complete photographic record of the conflict, dispatching 20 photographers to capture images in different war zones. Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan were both in the field for Brady. Both of them eventually quit because Brady didn’t give individual credit.

Brady likely did take photos himself on battlefields like Bull Run and Gettysburg (although not necessarily during the actual battle). The photographer later boasted, “I had men in all parts of the army, like a rich newspaper.”


Brady's eyes had plagued him since childhood—in his youth, he was reportedly nearly blind, and he wore thick, blue-tinted glasses as an adult. Brady's real reason for relying less and less on his own expertise might have been because of his failing eyesight, which had started to deteriorate in the 1850s.


War photographer Mathew Brady's buggy was converted into a mobile darkroom and travelling studio, or, Whatizzit Wagon, during the American Civil War.
Mathew B Brady, Getty Images

The group of Brady photographers that scoured the American north and south to capture images of the Civil War traveled in what became known as “Whatizzit Wagons,” which were horse-drawn wagons filled with chemicals and mobile darkrooms so they could get close to battles and develop photographs as quickly as possible.

Brady’s 1862 New York gallery exhibit, "The Dead of Antietam,” featured then-unseen photographs of some of the 23,000 victims of the war’s bloodiest day, which shocked American society. “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," a New York Times reviewer wrote. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”


Brady and his associates couldn't just wander out onto the battlefield with cameras—the photographer needed to obtain permission. So he set up a portrait session with Winfield Scott, the Union general in charge of the Army. The story goes that as he photographed the general—who was posed shirtless as a Roman warrior—Brady laid out his plan to send his fleet of photographers to tell the visual story of the war unlike any previous attempts in history. Then the photographer gifted the general some ducks. Scott was finally convinced, and he approved Brady’s plan in a letter to General Irvin McDowell. (Scott's Roman warrior portrait is, unfortunately, now lost.)


Brady’s first foray into documenting the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. Though he had approved of Brady's plan, General McDowell did not appreciate the photographers' presence during the battle.

Brady himself was supposedly near the front lines when the fighting began, and quickly became separated from his companions. During the battle, he was forced to take shelter in nearby woods, and slept there overnight on a bag of oats. He eventually met back up with the Army and made his way to Washington, where rumors swelled that his equipment caused a panic that was responsible for the Union’s defeat at the battle. “Some pretend, indeed, that it was the mysterious and formidable-looking instrument that produced the panic!” one observer noted. “The runaways, it is said, mistook it for the great steam gun discharging 500 balls a minute, and took to their heels when they got within its focus!”


Before, after, and occasionally during the Civil War, Brady and Co. also photographed members of the Confederate side, such as Jefferson Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Pike, James Longstreet, James Henry Hammond, and Robert E. Lee after he returned to Richmond following his surrender at Appomattox Court House. “It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit,” Brady said later. “I thought that to be the time for the historical picture.”


Union troops with a field gun during the American Civil War.
Mathew Brady, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence,” Brady told an interviewer in 1891. Their instincts were right.

Brady invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Civil War project in hopes that the government would buy his photo record of the war after it was all said and done. But once the Union prevailed, a public reeling from years of grueling conflict showed no interest in Brady's grim photos.

After the financial panic of 1873 he declared bankruptcy, and he lost his New York studio. The War Department eventually bought over 6000 negatives from Brady’s collection—which are now housed in the National Archives—for only $2840 total.

Despite being responsible for some of the most iconic images of the era, Brady never regained his financial footing, and he died alone in New York Presbyterian Hospital in 1896 after being hit by a streetcar.

General Mills
10 Winning Facts about Wheaties
General Mills
General Mills

Famous for its vivid orange boxes featuring star athletes and its classic "breakfast of champions" tagline, Wheaties might be the only cereal that's better known for its packaging than its taste. The whole wheat cereal has been around since the 1920s, becoming an icon not just of the breakfast aisle, but the sports and advertising worlds, too. Here are 10 winning facts about it.


The Washburn Crosby Company wasn't initially in the cereal business. At the time, the Minnesota-based company—which became General Mills in 1928—primarily sold flour. But in 1921, the story goes, a dietitian in Minneapolis spilled bran gruel on a hot stove. The bran hardened into crispy, delicious flakes, and a new cereal was born. In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company began selling a version of the flakes as a boxed cereal it called Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. A year later, after a company-wide contest, the company changed the name to Wheaties.


Wheaties sales were slow at first, but the Washburn Crosby Company already had a built-in advertising platform: It owned the Minneapolis radio station WCCO. Starting on December 24, 1926, the station began airing a jingle for the cereal sung by a barbershop quartet called the Wheaties Quartet. The foursome sang "Have You Tried Wheaties" live over the radio every week, earning $15 (about $200 today) per performance. In addition to their weekly singing gig, the men of the Wheaties Quartet all also had day jobs: One was an undertaker, one was a court bailiff, one worked in the grain industry, and one worked in printing. The ad campaign eventually went national, helping boost Wheaties sales across the country and becoming an advertising legend.


Carl Lewis signs a Wheaties box with his image on it for a young boy.
Track and field Olympic medalist Carl Lewis
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Wheaties has aligned itself with the sports world since its early days. In 1927, Wheaties bought ad space at Minneapolis's Nicollet Park, home to a minor league baseball team called the Millers, and in 1933, the cereal brand started sponsoring the team's game-day radio broadcasts on WCCO. Eventually, Wheaties baseball broadcasts expanded to 95 different radio stations, covering teams all over the country and further cementing its association with the sport. Since then, generations of endorsements from athletes of all stripes have helped sell consumers on the idea that eating Wheaties can make them strong and successful just like their favorite players. The branding association has been so successful that appearing on a Wheaties box has itself become a symbol of athletic achievement.


In the 1930s, a young sports broadcaster named Ronald Reagan was working at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, narrating Wheaties-sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. As part of this job, Reagan went to California to visit the Cubs' spring training camp in 1937. While he was there, he also did a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio ended up offering him a seven-year contract, and later that year, he appeared in his first starring role as a radio commentator in Love Is On The Air.


Three Wheaties boxes featuring Michael Phelps
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Although a Wheaties box wouldn't seem complete without an athlete's photo on it today, the cereal didn't always feature athletes front and center. In the early years, the boxes had photos of athletes like baseball legend Lou Gehrig (the first celebrity to be featured, in 1934) on the back or side panels of boxes. Athletes didn't start to appear on the front of the box until 1958, when the cereal featured Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.


Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box in 1984, but women did appear elsewhere on the box in the brand's early years. The first was pioneering aviator and stunt pilot Elinor Smith. Smith, whose picture graced the back of the box in 1934, set numerous world aviation records for endurance and altitude in the 1920s and 1930s.


Though we now associate Wheaties with athletes rather than an animal mascot, the cereal did have the latter during the 1950s. In an attempt to appeal to children, Wheaties adopted a puppet lion named Champy (short for "Champion") as the brand's mascot. Champy and his puppet friends sang about the benefits of Wheaties in commercials that ran during The Mickey Mouse Club, and kids could order their own Champy hand puppets for 50 cents (less than $5 today) if they mailed in Wheaties box tops.


Of all the athletes who have graced the cover of a Wheaties box, basketball superstar Michael Jordan takes the cake for most appearances. He's been featured on the box 18 times, both alone and with the Chicago Bulls. He also served as a spokesperson for the cereal, appearing in numerous Wheaties commercials in the '80s and '90s.


MMA star Anthony Pettis on the front of a Wheaties box.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The public hasn't often gotten a chance to weigh in on who will appear on the Wheaties box. But in 2014, Wheaties customers got to decide for the first time which athlete would be featured nationally. Called the Wheaties NEXT Challenge, the contest allowed people to vote for the next Wheaties Champion by logging their workouts on an app platform called MapMyFitness. Every workout of 30 minutes or more counted as one vote. Participants could choose between Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, motocross rider Ryan Dungey, mixed-martial-artist Anthony Pettis, lacrosse player Rob Pannell, or soccer player Christen Press. Pettis won, becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the box in early 2015.


Three different Wheaties boxes featuring Tiger Woods sitting together on a table
Tiger Woods's Wheaties covers, 1998
Getty Images

Faced with declining sales, Wheaties introduced several spinoff cereals during the 1990s and early 2000s, including Honey Frosted Wheaties, Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, and Wheaties Energy Crunch. None of them sold very well, and they were all discontinued after a few years. The brand kept trying to expand its offerings, though. In 2009, General Mills introduced Wheaties Fuel, a version of the cereal it claimed was more tailored to men's dietary needs. Wheaties Fuel had more vitamin E and—unlike the original—no folic acid, which is commonly associated with women's prenatal supplements. Men didn't love Wheaties Fuel, though, and it was eventually discontinued too. Now, only the original "breakfast of champions" remains.


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