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Chloe Effron

25 Well-Tuned Facts About Tennessee

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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.

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Essential Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.


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