I’m still a little chapped about that recent story from Chicago where it’s considered racist to listen to Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” As a child growing up in Alabama, we were always made aware of our troubled past, but we preferred to focus on the positive aspects of our beloved home state as much as possible. Whenever one of our own “made it big,” we liked to promote that person’s celebrity in an attempt to remind everybody that everything wasn’t evil in the Heart of Dixie. I always carry around with me a mental list of famous Alabamians (Truman Capote, Tallulah Bankhead, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Courtney Cox, Channing Tatum, Tim Cook, etc.), but I’ve always been fascinated with cool and unusual events from Alabama’s past that are worth noting. Therefore, I created a Top 10 list of notable things about Alabama that might surprise you a little bit. In doing so, I resisted a very strong temptation to include famous people, and I limited myself only to famous events. I hope you’ll enjoy them.
10) Meteorite Strike (Sylacauga)
The first and only meteorite to strike a human in the United States took place in Sylacauga in 1954. 34-year-old Ann Hodges was taking a nap one afternoon when a large meteoroid flashed across the southern sky and broke into three pieces. One piece landed somewhere in nearby Childersburg, a second piece landed in a Sylacauga farmer’s field, and the third piece crashed through Hodges’ roof, bounced off a console radio, and struck her on the hip. The piece that struck Hodges was donated to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, and the piece that fell into the field was recovered by the farmer and sold to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. However, the remaining piece that impacted near Childersburg has never been found.
9) Electric Trolley (Montgomery)
The world’s first electric trolley system was up and running in the capitol city of Montgomery in 1886. Called the Lightning Route, it was completely operational in downtown Montgomery almost ten full years before San Francisco’s famous cable car routes were established. Montgomery’s electric trolleys were eventually replaced by buses in 1936, and the tourist bus system that runs today in downtown Montgomery is called the Lightning Route Trolley.
8) First Colony of Fire Ants (Mobile)
The world’s leading expert on ants is Dr. Edward O. Wilson of Birmingham, Alabama. He was a natural-born outdoorsman as a child, but a serious injury to one of his eyes caused him to be able to focus his vision only on close-up small details, such as the hairs on the body of an ant. When he was 13, he was playing in an empty lot near the port of Mobile, and noticed a colony of ants of which type he’d never seen before. He reported the ants to local authorities, and they were identified as the first colony of red imported fire ants from South America in the United States. By the time Wilson was a student at the University of Alabama in 1949, the ants were quickly becoming a threat to agriculture and dairy, and the State of Alabama requested he complete a survey of the ant’s progress, which helped launch him into his famous career.
7) Automobile Manufacturing (many places)
In 1997, Alabama got its first auto factory with Mercedes-Benz building a factory near Tuscaloosa, and in 12 short years Alabama added three other plants across the state (Hyundai, Honda, and Toyota) and has a vehicle production capacity of over 760,000 vehicles per year, making it the third largest auto-producing state in the United States. Alabama jumped from 0 to 2 million vehicles produced in nine years. In addition to the car plants themselves, there are over 400 auto-related satellite businesses that have popped up in Alabama in the past 15 years.
6) Boll Weevil Statue (Enterprise)
The only statue in the world erected to honor an agricultural pest was established in Enterprise. In 1915, the Mexican boll weevil nearly completely destroyed the Alabama cotton crop. Farmers were forced to turn to peanuts and other crops to offset the losses, and the state’s economy was barely saved from the brink of disaster. In 1919, the residents of Enterprise dedicated the Boll Weevil Monument statue as a tribute to the will of the Alabama farmer to overcome adversity. If it were not for the hated boll weevil, the farmers of south Alabama might never have discovered the vast potential of the peanut.
5) Coon Dog Cemetery (Tuscumbia)
In 1937, a hunter named Key Underwood buried his favorite hound named Troop near his home of Tuscumbia in northwest Alabama. A marker was erected and a memorial was chiseled into a nearby rock. Soon, other area hunters began burying their beloved hunting dogs near Troop, and the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard was established. Since that time, 185 coon dogs from all over the U.S. have been buried there. In order to qualify for burial in this cemetery, a dog must be a certified coon dog by witnesses, one of whom must be a member of the local coon hunters association.
4) Vulcan (Birmingham)
Vulcan is the largest cast-iron statue in the world standing at 56 feet (17 meters). Although created for the 1904 World’s Fair, Vulcan did not have a permanent home atop his pedestal near Birmingham until the 1930’s. He was originally cast to commemorate the vast mineral, mining, and metallurgy industry of Birmingham. Since his naked buttocks face the nearby Birmingham suburb of Homewood, he is frequently referred to by locals as the “Moon over Homewood.”
3) Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville)
Jeff Foxworthy used to tell a joke about how “NASA” and “Alabama” just don’t seem to go together, but there it is. Wernher von Braun and other German rocket experts from World War II were assigned to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville in 1950 to develop the American space rocket program. Their base of operations soon became known as the Marshall Space Flight Center when NASA was officially established by President Eisenhower. The Jupiter-C and Saturn rockets were all developed and built in Huntsville, as well as components for all lunar landings, Skylab, Hubble, and the Space Shuttle.
2) 9-1-1 Emergency System (Haleyville)
In 1967, President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement recommended that a nationwide emergency phone number be established, and AT&T quickly announced its plans to comply and initiate the system. However, a local Alabama businessman named Bob Gallagher who owned the Alabama Telephone Company decided he would beat them to the punch. In just one short month after AT&T’s announcement, America’s first 9-1-1 call was made from the Haleyville City Hall to the Haleyville Police Station. AT&T eventually duplicated the feat a month later in another state.
1) Mardi Gras (Mobile)
America’s first organized Mardi Gras celebrations occurred in Mobile in 1703, and have continued every year since. French King Louis XIV sent the LeMoyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, to establish the French claim of French Louisiana along the gulf coast, and the first settlement was made by Iberville in 1699 near Biloxi. In 1702, Bienville established Mobile as the capitol of French Louisiana, and French settlers in that town began celebrating Mardi Gras the next year. Although the capitol was moved to Biloxi in 1720, and then finally to New Orleans in 1723, the Mardi Gras celebrations continued in Mobile, and America’s first organized Mardi Gras parade was also established in Mobile in 1830. In an odd footnote, Iberville had been all set to establish the first settlement near Mobile in 1699, but they discovered an offshore island practically covered in thousands of human bones. They quickly named the place Massacre Island and left, although it would be rediscovered and named for the son of Louis XIV as Dauphin Island. The bones? Probably just a storm-scattered Indian burial ground.