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Chloe Effron

25 Unusual Facts About Utah

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Chloe Effron

Settled by Mormon pioneers in 1847, ceded to the U.S. in 1848, and finally recognized as a state in 1896, Utah has one of the most unique histories of any state in the union. It’s also home to some stunning natural landmarks, peculiar customs, and settings that should be familiar to anyone who’s a fan of Westerns. Here are 25 things you might not know about the Beehive State.

1. Utah is where you can find one of the heaviest organisms on earth. The Trembling Giant, or Pando, in the Fishlake National Forest, is made up of 47,000 genetically identical trees that share a single root system. In addition to being notably massive, it’s also among the oldest organisms on earth—it's been alive for more than 80,000 years.

2. According to the state’s license plates, Utah boasts “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” This claim is based around the notion that the snow is supposedly lighter and drier than what’s found in other states, which lends itself well to deep-powder skiing. Research has shown that while Utah’s dry, fluffy snow may not be unique to the state, the high amount of snowfall that hits its top ski resort has helped to boost its reputation.

3. The town of Levan (which is "navel" spelled backwards) is located in the middle of the Utah. According to local lore, the town got its name because it sits at what would be the belly-button of the state, although the official story goes that Brigham Young picked out the tag.

4. Philo T. Farnsworth, the man best known for inventing a prototype of the first all-electric television, was born in Beaver, Utah in 1906. His love of tinkering was apparent from a young age. As a teenager, he converted his parents’ home appliances to electric power and won a national contest by inventing a magnetized car lock. He first sketched out his concept for the vacuum tube that would later revolutionize television in his high school chemistry class, but it was brushed off by his teacher and classmates at the time.

5. In 1869, the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was completed in Promontory, Utah. Construction on the project began in Sacramento to the west and in Omaha to the east and took seven years to build.

6. The Bonneville Salt Flats comprises 30,000 acres of desolate, densely packed salt pan. The spot’s incredibly flat and smooth terrain makes it a popular destination for speed-seeking land racers. In 1964, a man named Norman Craig Breedlove broke the record for longest continuous tire skid when he lost control of his jet-powered Spirit of America on the flats. The resulting skid marks stretched 6 miles long.

Mr. Nixter via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

7. Loftus International, a family-run novelty company in Salt Lake City, sells between 10,000 and 20,000 rubber chickens each year.

8. The official state cooking vessel of Utah is the Dutch oven. Like the ax and the rifle, these cast iron cooking pots would have been considered precious necessities by westbound pioneers coming to the state in the 19th century. Utah recognized the Dutch oven as an official state symbol in 1997.

9. Utah is the only state where every county contains some part of a national forest.

10. Sixty percent of Utah’s population is Mormon (compared to just 2 percent of the American population overall), making it the most religiously-homogeneous state in the nation. This comes through in many aspects of the state’s culture, their unique liquor laws being one major example. Newer restaurants in Utah are required to erect an opaque barrier or “Zion Curtain” around their bars to keep children from seeing alcoholic drinks as they’re being prepared.

11. Walter Fredrick Morrison, the man credited for inventing the Frisbee, was a Utah native. The inspiration for the idea came from tossing tin cake pans back and forth on the beach with his future wife. He began manufacturing “Pluto Platters” of his own in 1948.

12. In 1847, seagulls helped save the lives of pioneers by consuming swarms of crickets that threatened to wipe out their crops. The event was dubbed the “Miracle of the Gulls” and in 1913 a monument depicting two bronze seagulls perched atop a granite column was erected in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square to commemorate the event. The California Gull has since been adopted as Utah’s official state bird.

BigBen212 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

13. Utahans eat twice the amount of lime green Jell-O as the rest of the population. A popular way to consume the sweet treat in Utah is to add shredded carrots to the mix.

14. The Utahraptor, one of the largest raptors ever known to exist, was discovered in Utah and named after the state. At around 18 feet long, it would have more closely resembled the raptors depicted in Jurassic Park (1993) than its measly cousin the Velociraptor. It was almost named after the movie’s director, but the paleontologist who discovered it was unsuccessful when he proposed the idea to Spielberg in exchange for fieldwork funds.

15. The location of the first-ever KFC wasn’t in Kentucky, but 1500 miles west in Salt Lake City, Utah. The iconic fried chicken recipe was first served in the cafe of Colonel Sanders's friend (and Utah native) Leon W. "Pete" Harman. While paying a visit to his friend’s home in Salt Lake City, Sanders was able to convince him to put the chicken on his menu at the Harman cafe. Harman agreed, and when Sanders returned to Utah a few weeks later he found customers lined up down the street waiting to taste his product. His success at the Utah location inspired him to continue licensing his chicken recipe to restaurants across the country.

16. Utah’s Arches National Park is known for containing more than 2000 natural sandstone arches. In the past, hikers who have discovered undocumented arches have been given the honor of getting to name them.

Palacemusic via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

17. Utah is the only state whose capital is three words long. At one point it was even longer: Salt Lake City was originally named Great Salt Lake City” for its proximity to the Great Salt Lake, but they decided to drop the “Great” in 1868.

18. If your vision of the Old West is informed by films and shows like Stagecoach, The Lone Ranger, and Gunsmoke, you’re likely picturing Kane County. It’s often referred to as “Little Hollywood” because it’s served as the backdrop for dozens of Westerns over the years. You can go here to check out the full list (non-Westerns like Arabian Nights and the original Planet of the Apes were also filmed there).

19. It’s illegal to modify the weather in Utah—at least without a permit. The Utah Administrative Code defines weather modification or “cloud seeding" as, “All acts undertaken to artificially distribute or create nuclei in cloud masses for the purposes of altering precipitation, cloud forms, or other meteorological parameters."

20. The Uintah County Library houses a collection of handmade dolls modeled after every U.S. First Lady up to Nancy Reagan.

21. Utah lays claim to one of the biggest man-made pits on earth. About a 30 minute drive from Salt Lake City, the Bingham Canyon mine has produced 18.1 million tons of copper since the Kennecott Copper Corp. began digging there a century ago. The mine reaches a quarter of a mile into the earth, making it deep enough to fit two Willis Buildings stacked on top of one another and still have room left at the top. The pit’s massive size makes it easily visible to astronauts as they pass over the state. And because Kennecott digs approximately 250,000 tons of rock from the pit every day, tourists can see the hole grow bigger with every visit (the mine is currently closed to visitors due to movement detected on its northeast wall).

22. When Jim Bridger became the first English-speaking person to discover the Great Salt Lake in 1824, he mistakenly thought he had reached the Pacific Ocean. The Great Salt Lake contains between 4.5 and 4.9 billion tons of dissolved salt. The parts of the lake with the highest salt content are nearly nine times saltier than the ocean.

23. According to a recent study conducted by WalletHub, Utah is home to the most charitable people in the country. Utah ranked first in volunteer rates among residents, first in percentage of donated income, and first in median contribution to charity.

24. Bryce Canyon is one of five national parks in the state. The most unique feature of the park are its sprawling forests of Hoodoos, or thin pillars of rock shaped by years of erosion. Nineteenth-century Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, for whom the park is named, apparently described it as "a hell of a place to lose a cow."

Jean-Christophe BENOIST via Wikimedia Commons //CC BY 3.0

25. Utah was the site of the nation’s first department store. The Mormon leader Brigham Young founded the Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution, or ZCMI, in 1868 in Salt Lake City. The 130-year enterprise finally shut down in 1999, when the Mormon Church sold the store to the Macy’s corporation.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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iStock

Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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