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  SIX THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT: PENNSYLVANIA.  
   
   
 

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Keystone State. Either designation makes us seem dignified and important. In some ways we are, but if you ever find yourself a resident of our fair state, you'll use our preferred nickname: The humble postal abbreviation, P-A.

And unless you come to live in or near Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, you may encounter folks who prefer that you have white skin, own a hunting rifle, root for the Nittany Lions, vote for George Bush, enjoy pickled foods and do not

 
 

have an aversion to rusty cars straddling cement blocks. Don't get me wrong. Pennsylvanians played pivotal roles in the history of religious freedom, abolitionism, and the development of the labor movement. So it's not that we're opposed to diversity on principle. We're just a little hesitant to rock our own boat. What can you expect from a state with the oldest population outside of Florida?

Even if you might not want to live here, there are plenty of good reasons to visit. Whether it's antiques or outlet stores, shopping is a definite attraction. So is nature. We may not have the tallest mountains or access to an ocean, but we deliver on our Penn's Woods namesake. With more than 100 state parks and over 90 percent of the state forested or farmed, a great hike or scenic drive is easy to find. Historical, cultural and amusement attractions abound. But if you come for nothing else, come for the food.

 

#1. It's Partly our Fault You're Fat.

Pennsylvania is the snack food capital of the nation. You may know us as the home of Hershey's chocolate, but did you know that Pennsylvania also produces more potato chips than any other state? We make enough potato chips to fill 80 million 12-ounce bags every year. Pennsylvanians invented both the pretzel and the animal cracker. And while your favorite ice cream may come from Vermont, Ben & Jerry both got their start through a correspondence course from Penn State's world-renowned ice cream educational program. Let's not forget to pay homage to Philadelphia cheesesteaks, Tastycakes, marshmallow Peeps, Mrs. T's pierogies, Lebanon bologna, shoo-fly pie and the Heinz ketchup and relish on all those hot dogs we eat. Of course, you'll need something to wash all of this down. Oh yeah, we have the nation's oldest brewery too. Yuengling Lager, anyone?

 

#2. Don't Blame Us for the $10 Movie Tickets.

We only wanted five cents. You may hooray for Hollywood or think New York is a helluva town, but Pennsylvania deserves some recognition for its supporting role in the development of today's entertainment-industrial complex. It was a Pittsburgh duo, John Harris and Harry Davis, who opened the first theater devoted to movies in 1905. Located inside their penny arcade, they charged a nickel for admission and were soon operating from 8 a.m. to midnight. Before long, thousands of nickelodeons popped up in cities across the country, ushering in a new era of the motion picture as profit-making industry, entertainment for the masses and pop culture juggernaut. Pittsburgh also played host to the nation's first radio station, KDKA, which first broadcast in 1920 and had its roots in the garage of a Westinghouse Electric engineer named Frank Conrad. Without John Walson, an appliance store salesman in the small town of Mahanoy City, you might never have enjoyed Sex in the City. Because of the mountains surrounding their homes and their distance from Philadelphia broadcasters, his customers had trouble receiving television signals. In June 1948 he solved the problem by jury-rigging some coaxial cable and homemade amplifiers to his mountain antennae. Walson later joined with others to improve cable television, and his Wilkes-Barre based company created the first pay television service, Home Box Office, in 1972.

 

#3. Our Roads Suck, But So Do Whiners Like You.

We spend more than $2 billion a year on an immense system of roads that equals all the highways, local roads and city streets in New Jersey and New England combined. We've got more roads than California, a state three times our size. Potholes are the price we pay for enjoying all that nature's four seasons have to offer. Hot and humid summers mixed with cold and snowy winters equals expanding and contracting pavement. That means more cracks, which in turn become potholes big enough to swallow a Mini Cooper. But according to Overdrive magazine's annual survey, we no longer have the worst roads in the nation. That designation belongs to Arkansas. And for five years running, Pennsylvania was voted most improved. So, next time you bitch about the bumpy ride or construction delays, give us a break. We're working on it. And as you cruise from state to state on high-speed, multi-lane, limited-access highways, remember that we brought you the nation's first -- the Pennsylvania Turnpike way back in 1940.

 

#4. We're Out of the White House Closet.

Historians often cite Pennsylvania native James Buchanan -- you know, the guy before Lincoln -- as one of the United State's least effective presidents. Lately, he is also being remembered as one of the least straight (not that there's anything wrong with that). James Loewen lays forth the circumstantial evidence for Buchanan's homosexuality (though they didn't call it that back then) in Lies Across America. Buchanan, the only bachelor president, seems to have been extremely close to his sometimes roommate, William Rufus King, our only bachelor vice-president (under Pierce, figuratively speaking). Critics called King "Buchanan's better half" and "Aunt Fancy," and the pair were known about the nation's capital as the "Siamese twins." When King was appointed envoy to France, a distraught Buchanan apparently went elsewhere for companionship, telling a friend that he had "gone wooing to several gentlemen." As a young lawyer in Lancaster, Buchanan was betrothed to the beautiful and wealthy Ann Coleman. But in a bizarre string of events, she died of "hysteria" days after breaking off the engagement. Did she discover his secret? Chalk this up as another one of history's mysteries. Oh, and Buchanan also believed he would be reincarnated as a frog, but that's probably not related to any of his other, uh, tendencies.

 

#5. Hot Time on the ol' Town.

The only thing more flaming than our native-born president is the small, coal-region town of Centralia. If you decide to visit, you'll get a warm reception. Just don't expect to meet any of the residents. Most of them have been gone since 1992, 30 years after some burning trash at the local dump ignited an unstoppable mine fire underneath the town. Millions of federal and state dollars were spent trying to extinguish the flames. When nothing worked, millions more were spent condemning homes and moving everyone out. From a population of 1100 in 1960, only 15 stalwart townspeople remain. Their houses, shored up by cement-block buttresses, seem randomly dispersed throughout an other-worldly landscape of cracked pavement, rusted vent pipes and steam rising from the warm, but lifeless, ground. In an area where the effects of unbridled strip mining mar the landscape, it's almost as if Mother Nature is reclaiming this little piece of earth for herself.

 

#6. Al Capone Slept Here.

You may associate Quakers with peace or oatmeal, but what should really come to mind is solitary confinement. Before the 19th century, prisons were primarily places to hold the accused as they awaited their punishment, which might be anything from a whipping to a day in the pillory to death. Such acts did not sit well with Pennsylvania's reform-minded Quakers, who felt criminals might be made penitent (hence the term penitentiary) with a hefty dose of solitude and reflection. By 1822 they convinced the Pennsylvania legislature to approve and pay for a new prison based on their ideas. Seven years later, Charles Williams, a farmer convicted of stealing a twenty-dollar watch, found himself the first inmate of the revolutionary Eastern State Penitentiary. The most expensive building in America at the time of its construction, its 30-foot walls and radial cellblock design set the standard for prisons worldwide for the next century. Many, however, criticized the Quaker's use of solitary confinement, including Charles Dickens, who was among the tens of thousands of tourists who flocked to the structure in the years after it opened. Today, we've come full circle as Eastern State, which ceased operations in 1971, is now a wicked-cool museum with an audio tour narrated with a hint of creepiness by Steve Buscemi. One highlight is an opulent cell -- outfitted with polished wood furniture, large paintings, and a cabinet radio -- used by Al Capone, who spent eight months there on a weapons charge, some say just to avoid the IRS. Take that, Alcatraz!

 

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Tim Brixius, a limey by birth but a coal cracker at heart, currently resides in Lancaster. His wife is not Amish, but she does make a mean shoo-fly pie.