Pennsylvania Bizarre Facts

Remember the Steagles!

Yes, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers did merge one season to form a team called the Steagles. It was during World War II when hundreds of football players joined the military. Desperate, with only a handful of players each, the teams combined in 1943. Not only did they merge nicknames but also uniform patterns. The team put together a respectable 5-4-1 season.

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Milton Hershey and the Titanic

Milton Hershey, founder of Hershey Company, put down a $300 deposit for a first-class stateroom for the maiden voyage of the Titanic. But the chocolate gods were on his side, and he never stepped aboard the doomed ship. Hershey and his wife, who were rich after opening up their chocolate factory in 1905, spent the winter of 1911 in Nice, France. They planned to travel home on the Titanic, in a suite costing at least $3,000, but ended up returning home earlier aboard a German luxury liner, the Amerika.

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The Big Mas was invented in Pennsylvania

A McDonald’s franchise owner in Uniontown (south of Pittsburgh) created the two-burger concoction. He spent a couple years figuring out the right ingredients for the sauce, and started selling it in his restaurant in 1967. It swept the nation the next year. You can visit the Big Mac Museum Restaurant. It’s a working restaurant in North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, with memorabilia such as a 14-foot-tall Big Mac.

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The Millionaires

You don’t think of outrageous wealth when you drive through the northern Pennsylvania city of Williamsport today. But its sports teams are known as the Millionaires. That because in the late 1800s, the city was booming because of the lumber industry. Williamsport claims to have had more millionaires per person than any other city. You can visit the Millionares’ Row Historic District to see the remaining mansions built by the lumber barons.

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Yuengling invented early energy drink

Pennsylvania residents know that D.G. Yuengling and Son is the country’s oldest operating brewery, started in 1829. What’s less known is how it survived Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933. The company thought Prohibition would be short-lived and it just needed to ride things out. It created three “near beers” with a low alcohol content of 0.5 percent. They were Yuengling Special (its most popular), Yuengling Por-Tor and Yuengling Juvo. The latter was an early energy drink made with cereal grains. Oh, and the company started a dairy that produced ice cream and other dairy products.

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The Pagoda

Looking down on the city of Reading is the strange and wonderful Pagoda. The seven-story structure was built in 1908 to serve as a resort atop Mount Penn but the owner wasn’t able to get a liquor license. It has been maintained by the city of Reading since 1911. It contains a bell cast in Japan in 1739. Lights flash on the Pagoda at 9 p.m. every Christmas Eve to let children know that Santa is on his way. Legendary Pennsylvania author John Updike was fascinated by the Pagoda, mentioning it in novels. In “Rabbit, Run” and sequels, he changed the name of Mount Penn to Mount Judge, and the Pagoda to the Pinnacle Hotel.

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30,000 pounds of bananas

In a freak 1965 accident in Scranton, a driver hauling bananas lost control of his truck on a steep hill and blew down Moosic Street at up to 100 mph, unable to stop. Singer Harry Chapin, the “Cat’s in the Cradle” songwriter, was strangely drawn to the incident. His 1974 song “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” recounts the incident, increasing in speed with the speed of the runaway truck. “And he sideswiped nineteen neat parked cars, Clipped off thirteen telephone poles, Hit two houses, bruised eight trees, And Blue Crossed seven people.” The truck driver was the only one killed in the crash.

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Why a male cop dressed as an Amish woman

A police officer in western Pennsylvania spent weeks in 2013 and 2014 dressed as an Amish woman. The goal? Try to capture a man who was exposing himself to Amish children. Pulaski Township Sgt. Chad Adams afterward posted a photo of himself wearing an Amish dress and hat.

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The nudist, free-love Battle Axes

A small religious group settled in the 1840s in northern Chester County in an area that became known as Free Love Valley. It was founded by a guy named Theophilus Ransom Gates, who thought marriage was too restrictive and that people should be able to have sexual relations with other people. Services were held in each other’s houses, and they were known to bathe nude in local ponds. Eventually, some members were arrested on charges of adultery or fornication and the group faded away.

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We have the world’s largest paint can

You can find this roadside attraction on Interstate 83 between Harrisburg and York. A Shippensburg paint store converted a water tank into a 35-foot-tall can of Benjamin Moore paint, complete with a metal handle.

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We also have a giant coffee pot

The Giant Coffee Pot of Bedford was originally built in the 1920s as a lunch counter next to a gas station on Route 30. When it fell into disrepair, it was recognized as a historic landmark on the Lincoln Highway, which was the first coast-to-coast highway. The coffee pot has been restored and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

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We are the Mushroom Capital of the World

The area around Chester County’s Kennett Square produces half of America’s mushrooms. According to the Gizmodo website, they make mushroom food just outside of the town, creating 20 acres of compost by mixing horse manure, hay and cocoa shells from the Hershey chocolate plant. The mushrooms are grown indoors in windowless, temperature-controlled buildings.

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Pennsylvannia’s Zippo is a pop culture icon

The Zippo lighter, made in northern Pennsylvania’s Bradford, has been featured in more than 1,500 movies, stage plays and television shows, the company says. They have been prominent in productions ranging from “I Love Lucy” and “Mad Men” to “The X-Men” and “Hairspray – the Musical.” And the Zippo “click” sound has been sampled on songs.

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We started the first oil boom

The country’s first oil well was drilled in western Pennsylvania’s Titusville in 1859. The “Pennsylvania oil rush” continued to the early 1870s. That first 70-foot-deep well, Drake Well, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

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Punxsutawney Phil has competitors

Our own Punxsutawney Phil is the most famous but he’s certainly not the only groundhog who predicts the weather. His competitors include Buckeye Chuck of Ohio, General Beauregard Lee of Georgia, Staten Island Chuck and Wiarton Willie of Ottawa, Canada.

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The almost NFL champs Pottsville Maroons

The Pottsville Maroons trounced the Chicago Cardinals 21-7 to win the 1925 National Football League Championship. But wait! The title was taken away a short time later. The league said the Maroons violated league policy when it played an exhibition game the following week in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s Frankford Yellow Jackets complained the game was in their territory, where they were the only team allowed to play and collect gate receipts. The Maroons were expelled from the league for the year, and the Cardinals were named champions.

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The smiley face emoticon started here

The inventor? A computer scientist at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, Scott Fahlman. CNN reported that in 1982, Fahlman wrote, “I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-). Read it sideways.”

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You can thank us for Bingo

Bingo was born in the early 1920s in and around Pittsburgh. A guy named Hugh J. Ward was the creator and began running the game at carnivals. He took it nationwide and wrote a book of Bingo rules in 1933.

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We invented pull tabs on cans

Beer cans have never been the same: Alcoa in 1962 developed the world’s first pull tabs on cans in Pittsburgh. They were first used by Pittsburgh’s Iron City Brewery.

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All residents of Erie can fit in Beaver Stadium

Penn State’s football Beaver Stadium holds 106,572. That’s more than the population of the state’s fourth-largest city, Erie, with 99,475, and just a bit below No. 3 city Allentown (an estimated 120,207).

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From Polka King to Ponzi scheme

Jan Lewan settled in Hazleton after immigrating from Poland and became known as the Polka King. He won a Grammy nomination, loyal fans and regular gigs at Bethlehem’s Musikfest, the Allentown Fair and shows in the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City. Fans followed the singer and bandleader on sightseeing trips to Europe and gave him their retirement money to invest. But his investment plans turned into a Ponzi scheme, and he was unable to repay nearly $5 million to people in 21 states. Jack Black portrays Lewan in a movie, “The Polka King,” which debuted in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival.

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Small town, big corporate scandal

The northern Pennsylvania borough of Coudersport (population about 2,500) was the headquarters of Adelphia Communications Corp., the sixth-largest cable company in the country. It was founded as a small operation in 1952 by John Rigas, and he and his sons built it into a national player through acquisitions. It all came crashing down in 2002 when Rigas, then 78, was arrested and handcuffed. He and other executives were accused of using company money for their own use. For instance, they were accused of using company jets for private trips such as an African safari and borrowing billions of dollars for their closely held companies. Adelphia sold its assets and no longer exists as a cable provider.

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Gravity Hill in Bedford County

So-called gravity hills can be found throughout the world. These are places where objects appear to roll uphill. They’re optical illusions, but that doesn’t take away from the fun. Bedford County is so proud of its hill that it will even send you a brochure with directions on finding it. The point is to go there, put your vehicle in neutral and experience the strange sensation of it seeming to slowly roll uphill.

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Prisoners living better than the president

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was based on a new model for prison reform: “a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart," according to Eastern State's website. "The concept grew from Enlightenment thinking, but no government had successfully carried out such a program.” The idea was to abandon corporal punishment and ill treatment. It was one of the most expensive American buildings when it opened in 1829. Each prisoner had a private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet and a skylight. As its website pointed out: “This was in an age when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.”

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Sheppton mine disaster and cannibalism song ‘Timothy’

Well, this is just weird and creepy. In 1970, songwriter Rupert Holmes had his first hit with “Timothy,” which tells the story of three men trapped in a mine. To survive, two of them resort to cannibalism and eat the third, named Timothy. Holmes, who would go on to later write the No. 1 “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” said he set out to write a song that would be banned from radio. His thinking: Any publicity is good. It worked, and the song peaked at No. 17. His band, The Buoys, was from Scranton-Wilkes Barre area. Some have linked the song to the 1963 Sheppton mine cave-in, outside Hazleton. There, three anthracite coal miners were trapped, and two were rescued after 14 days underground. Holmes said he didn’t learn about Sheppton until after the song became a hit.

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Staff of The Morning Call