Ten Extremely Unexpected U.S. State “Firsts”

The United States is the land of firsts. States all across the great country love to claim that they were the first place to do this or that. Aviation is a great example of this. North Carolina claims they were the “first in flight” because that’s where the Wright brothers successfully set off in their primitive plane way back at the very beginning of the 20th century. Yet Ohio also claims to be the “first in flight” because that is where the Wright brothers lived full time and owned the bicycle shop and other businesses in which they first tinkered with the idea for an airplane. And so on and so forth—every state lays claim to being the first at something (or many things).

But what about weird and wacky firsts? Not every state “first” is one to be proud of or one to lord over other states. Some are just plain random—and bizarre! In this list, we’ll take a look at ten state “firsts” that you almost certainly have never heard of before. They are funny, quirky, and original—and while these states may not use them to boast in promotional materials and tourism brochures, they are definitely memorable all the same!

Related: 10 Strange Facts About KFC And Its One and Only Colonel

10 Alabama: The First 911 Call

In 1968, the very first 911 call ever made was made in the small town of Haleyville, Alabama. Before 1968, “0” was actually the emergency number all across the United States. You’d call the operator, and the operator would patch you through to the police, fire department, or whatever you needed.

But by 1968, officials realized that they needed a standalone dispatch office and a specific number that people could call with emergencies in order to streamline the process. Trained dispatchers could take the calls, they could send out fire, police, and EMS, and the whole process could happen a good bit quicker than it had been going for a while. And in Haleyville, city officials wanted to be the first-ever spot in America to implement the new system. So, on February 16, 1968, that’s exactly what they did.

That morning, the Alabama speaker of the house picked up a red telephone and made the very first 911 call. Tom Bevill, a Congressman from the state, was on the other end of the line and waiting for the 911 dial-in from his fellow politician. The duo exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, determining that the line was working and the dispatchers would be able to hear people loud and clear.

It had only been a couple weeks earlier that Congress had mandated 911 become the nationwide emergency phone number, so Haleyville’s turnaround to get it up and running was very quick. Soon after that, plenty of other municipalities followed suit. And today, well, the act of dialing 911 is ingrained in Americans’ heads pretty much from childhood. So the system worked![1]

9 Florida: The First Sunscreen

In 1944, the sunny sights in Miami, Florida, were a must-visit for intrepid tourists and a mainstay for beach-loving locals. World War II was soon to wind down, of course, and Americans were hopeful to one day get back to their lives in peacetime. With that came a rush of outdoor fun that began for stateside locals even before the war ended. And that’s where Benjamin Green comes in.

See, Green had been serving in the war as an airman, just like many of his fellow young men across the United States. But in his personal life, Green had some real medical knowledge; he was a pharmacist, and he knew quite a bit about the human body. He also loved to surf and spend time outside. And he was sick of getting sunburned!

The combination of all those facts made Green a natural to tinker with lotions and lathers until he came up with an appropriate product. That year, Green perfected and then marketed a lotion that would darken tans and leave skin bronzed without having the wearer get so brutally sunburned. Suntan lotion was born, and the idea that a lather could work as a sunscreen immediately took hold.

Miami residents started using Green’s invention, and they loved how it bronzed their skin but left them without the awful red burns caused by the sun’s most intense rays. In turn, Green’s business blew up. Today, you know the brand that came from his 1944 idea as Coppertone. And it all started in Miami![2]

8 Iowa: The First Computer

You may think of Silicon Valley in northern California as the tech hub to end all tech hubs, but way back in the day, that wasn’t the case. In fact, the first “tech” hub was… in Ames, Iowa! What? In 1937, a professor of physics at Iowa State University named John Vincent Atanasoff began to tinker with what ended up being the world’s first electronic computer.

Along with a physics graduate student named Clifford Berry, Atanasoff spent the next five years perfecting the massive, unwieldy device. Finally, by 1942, it was ready to be shown off for what it was: the world’s first-ever electronic computer! Appropriately named the Atanasoff-Berry Computer in honor of the two gentlemen, or the ABC Computer, it made history as the first device created to electronically compute, read, and write.

As with all old technologies like that, the ABC Computer wouldn’t have been recognizable to us today as a computer. It was as big as a desk, and it weighed more than 750 pounds (340 kg). But it had quite a few important functions that were consistently and successfully working by 1942: rotating drums for memory, a read/write system that recorded numbers, glowing vacuum tubes, separate memory and computing functions, electronic amplifiers used as on-off switches, circuits that specialized in addition and subtraction, and a now-standard binary system for arithmetic, counting, and more. Of course, technology surged far beyond the ABC Computer soon enough. But it all started way back when at Iowa State University![3]

7 New York: The First Brewery

The great state of New York can lay claim to what some will consider the most important item on this list: the first public brewery. And it was established long (long, LONG!) before you might suspect—all the way back in 1632! In those days, the Dutch were the ones who built up and controlled the city. This was long before the United States was an independent nation, of course, and back then, the Dutch called their colony “New Amsterdam.”

At the time, for the first decade or so of the Dutch running the show in what would later become New York, beer was mostly brewed at home. But that all changed in 1632 when an enterprising group decided to publicly brew beer and sell it to their neighbors for a profit. And with that, the massive and wildly profitable alcohol industry was born in the U.S.!

The commercial brewery itself was built early in 1632 on lower Manhattan’s appropriately named Brewery Street (which is now known as Stone Street). Grain, malt, and hops all grew in the vicinity of New Amsterdam, so from a logistical perspective, it was very easy for brewers to get what they needed to make beer. In just a few years, the idea proved so popular that beer-making grew to be New Amsterdam’s biggest industry.

Dutch brewers soon sprung up all over the city and started competing with each other to sell suds to the locals and get them all good and soused. It wasn’t quite the same as the craft beer competitions of the last few decades, but it was a wild land grab in the alcoholic beverage industry all the same. Cheers![4]

6 South Carolina: The First Opera

On February 8, 1735, an opera called Flora first premiered in a makeshift theater constructed in Charleston, South Carolina. It was a very popular opera in England for several years running, and theater producers were hopeful that its popularity would catch on in America, too. They were right.

Flora nearly instantly became a hit as what was known then as a “ballad opera,” and soon, Americans were demanding more from the very same genre. In that way, South Carolina then unwittingly made some history: They became the very first-ever state to house an opera. And they weren’t even a state yet! Obviously, all this happened before the American Revolution and the country’s fight for independence.

All this opera stuff might seem like small potatoes, but it was actually a very big deal for American theater. See, this “ballad opera” proved so popular in Charleston that future theater producers and playwrights altered how they told stories in order to attract American audiences. This meant that more than ever before, the songs performed in operas had to be central to moving the storyline of the entire play along.

In turn, that meant that American musicals became a very popular, long-lasting genre. And it should go without saying that today, musicals are still incredibly popular and sought-after. From Broadway shows and the rise in popularity of Hamilton, musical theater is everywhere. And we all have South Carolina and its pioneering performance of Flora to thank for that.[5]

5 Maryland: The First Dental School

The state of Maryland holds the distinction of opening up the first-ever dental school in the United States nearly two full centuries ago. And in fact, it was the first-ever dental school opened anywhere in the world at the time! See, during America’s colonial era, dentistry was very much a hit-or-miss practice.

Some doctors picked up dentistry on the side and were reasonably good at it (you know, for the time period). Other people picked up the practice and mostly butchered their clients without really understanding what they were doing. The whole thing was unregulated and a mess, and it caused a lot of pain for a lot of people who were trying to find some relief from toothaches and jaw pain.

Enter the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. First founded in 1840, it became the first-ever regulated dental school anywhere in the United States. It was so far ahead of its time that it was a pioneer worldwide as far as dental medicine was concerned. Practitioners who went to that school turned out to be more capable at dentistry than any fly-by-night self-taught dentist who had come before them.

As the school churned out more students who were better skilled and more adept at careful and actually successful dental procedures, the country’s oral health slowly but surely improved. Eventually, the college was absorbed by Maryland’s public university system, and today, it is known as the University of Maryland School of Dentistry.[6]

4 Maine: The First City

The city of York, Maine, became the first-ever officially chartered city in the history of the New World when the English made that designation way back in 1641. The area was first settled long before that, in 1624, by Captain John Smith. He had explored the area as early as 1614 but didn’t put down any roots there for a decade. But in 1624, thinking that the York area would be a good site for a town, he opted to settle the area and start building.

At first, the city was known as Agamenticus. Then, in 1641, another explorer of the American continent named Sir Ferdinando Gorges came through the area and officially endowed the city with a charter. Under the name Gorgeana (nothing like naming a city for yourself, right?), Sir Gorges quite literally put the city on the map. And with that, the first official city in America was born.

Eleven years after Gorges’s move to charter things, the Massachusetts Bay Company took over the explorer’s property there. They revoked the Gorgeana charter and re-upped it with a new one of their own. In their designation, they gave the city the name which is still in use today: York.

The name was given in honor of Yorkshire, England—and it stuck! It grew slowly for a while from there. Then forty years later, in 1692, it was nearly completely destroyed in a raid by the local Abenaki Indians. But it persisted! Today, York is a popular tourist attraction for history buffs seeking an old-time colonial feel. It boasts a small but comfortable population of under 15,000 full-time residents.[7]

3 Michigan: The First Paved Road

Henry Ford’s Model T cars were sweeping Detroit and the rest of Michigan by storm at the very beginning of the 20th century. Local government officials realized they needed to build out public works to take care of them. So, in 1909, the very first paved road was built and smoothed over in the United States along a mile of Woodward Avenue in the city of Detroit. It wasn’t a highway as we know the term today, but back then, it was a groundbreaking (literally) move, and fans of the process called it “the world’s first concrete highway.”

See, brick pavers were already a thing long before that. Many streets in Detroit had them, and in cities elsewhere around the country and in other places across the world, too. But pavement that was concrete and smooth was non-existent. Unfortunately, early car models really struggled to navigate over bricks that were often remarkably uneven within blocks of road. So pavement was quickly seen as a better solution, and Detroit jumped on board to get that process started.

Throughout the spring of 1909, construction crews labored hard, and on April 20 of that year, the set-up was complete. For a one-mile stretch between Six Mile Road and Seven Mile Road, Woodward Avenue became paved for car traffic. The whole thing cost about $1,400—with roughly $1,000 in state funds contributing to the budget.[8]

2 Minnesota: The First Mall

Minnesota leads the way in malls in the modern age with the notorious and incredibly massive Mall of America. The thing is truly huge—bigger and wider and longer than many small towns, and with more people, employees, restaurants, and in-mall amusements to boot. So it should maybe make perfect sense that Minnesota is where mall culture first really exploded in the first few decades after the end of World War II.

Soldiers returned home in and then after 1945, and over the next decade, they all got busy starting families, working jobs, buying homes, and making money. That, in turn, pushed enterprising business executives to create massive and immersive shopping experiences where you could buy nearly everything you could possibly need in one place.

On October 8, 1956, that idea debuted in full in the form of Southdale Center. Set off in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, Minnesota, Southdale Center was the world’s first-ever fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center. What we know today as the mall made its notorious debut there in Edina for all to visit and shop within its walls.

Of course, Minnesota winters are very harsh. So the fact that the mall was climate-controlled and totally enclosed meant that people could come there all year round and get whatever they needed. And show up, they did! They showed up in such high numbers that the idea of building a mall soon spread to every other major metropolis across the United States.[9]

1 Arizona: The First Drive-Thru

The first-ever idea of a fast food drive-thru may have been thought about at various restaurants all across the nation, but Arizona catches the distinction of pioneering the practice. See, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, McDonald’s started thinking about how to better serve a driving-happy population in many markets. First, in Los Angeles and San Diego, franchisees started asking the corporate office about the possibility of putting in drive-thru windows so customers wouldn’t have to get out of their cars.

Executives liked the idea and tinkered with it some. Then, a franchisee in Oklahoma City came to them with the desire to put in the first drive-thru there. That McDonald’s had a perfect drive-up location and plenty of space for a line of cars. There was just one problem: the OKC restaurant badly needed to undergo renovations, so its drive-thru development was put on hold.

But the company still wanted to do the drive-thru idea ASAP. So into that space came a McDonald’s in Sierra Vista, Arizona. That restaurant was just down the road from the Fort Huachuca Army Base. At the time, the restaurant was seeing declining sales because of a then-new Army rule. The base had instituted a policy that soldiers had to stay in their vehicles while off-base when wearing fatigues or Army uniforms.

Because of that, they were not allowed to stop at McDonald’s, get out of their car, and pick up some food. The company realized that would be the perfect set-up to build out a drive-thru window, and so they did. Soon after that, other drive-thru windows popped up all over the United States. And now, it’s so commonplace that we think it’s weird when a McDonald’s doesn’t have a drive-thru window attached![10]

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