10. Haleyville, Alabama: Where 9-1-1 Began
Haleyville, a town of 4,100 in northwestern Alabama, might seem an unlikely spot to test a new national emergency phone system that came to be known as 9-1-1, but that’s what happened in 1968. Plans for a universal emergency number had been in the works for a decade but had been stalled. When Alabama Telephone Co. officials learned that AT&T and the FCC had chosen 911 for the emergency number, they leaped into action, converting Haleyville’s telephone exchange to accept 911 calls. On Feb. 16, 1968, then-state Speaker of the House Rankin Fite dialed 9-1-1 from Haleyville City Hall. The call was answered by U.S. Congressman Tom Bevill. Today, the city logo features a phone and the words “home of 911.” But perhaps its biggest nod to this history is the 9-1-1 Heritage Day Festival, held every June to honor emergency responders.
9. Metropolis, Illinois: Home of Superman
Faster than a speeding bullet, more than 30,000 Superman buffs descend each June upon this town of 6,500 in the southernmost tip of the Land of Lincoln. This town wouldn’t be the Holy Grail for Man of Steel devotees if not for DC Comics coining the superhero’s stomping grounds as “Metropolis.” In 1972, the comic book publisher declared the Illinois city as the caped one’s hometown. Never mind that Metropolis isn’t the supersized city of fiction, and the real “Metropolis” was platted in the 1830s; the founder, a merchant, appears to have been hopeful that the town would become a transportation hub and sprout population figures worthy of its name. Aside from the annual Superman Celebration, a 15-foot-tall bronze statue of you-know-who resides in Superman Square. Visitors can also find likenesses of Superman’s girlfriend/wife (is this open for debate?), Lois Lane, and a giant chunk of Kryptonite —hopefully nowhere near the S-Man. Even the town’s newspaper, “The Metropolis Planet,” pays homage to Clark Kent’s employer — “The Daily Planet.”
8. Santa Claus, Indiana: Home of Santa Claus
For more than two years, a small group of German settlers in southern Indiana lived in “anonymous” town. Eventually, on Christmas Eve, 1852, these inhabitants, including the kiddos, gathered together to come up with a name for their town. If not for the sound of sleigh bells off in the distance, which led the children to scream, “It’s Santa Claus!” there would be no Santa Claus, Indiana, nor would we have Santa Claus Land — the brainchild of Louis J. Koch, an entrepreneur and father of nine. This holiday amusement park has its own claim to fame. As the world’s first theme park, it opened in 1946 — nine years before Disneyland. The town of 2,300 receives hundreds of thousands of touching letters addressed to the Jolly Old Elf each year.
7. Pecos, Texas: Home of the World’s First Rodeo
Several towns have “cowboyed up” to being the home of the world’s first rodeo, but few embrace this contentious title quite like Pecos. From the time you enter the town, you encounter the omnipresent image of a cowboy with lasso in hand, and what started as a few cowboys meeting in 1883 to decide who was the best at riding and roping has become the West of the Pecos Rodeo — drawing top cowboys from all directions to the Panhandle town of nearly 8,000 people each June. But perhaps the most fiercely-contested title of all is that of “world’s oldest rodeo” — as Deer Trail, Colorado, went so far as to take the issue to the Colorado state house, where lawmakers proclaimed it the birthplace of rodeo instead. Also contesting the “first rodeo” title are Payson, Arizona, and North Platte, Nebraska.
6. Baraboo, Wisconsin: Birthplace of the Circus
This city of 12,000 in south-central Wisconsin is the undisputed birthplace of the circus — specifically, Ringling Bros. Thanks to the five siblings who launched the first circus and winter quarters here in 1884, the town is “everything Ringling.” Street names pay homage to the family and the circus. Al Ringling Theatre still stands, as does one of Al’s homes – though it has fallen into disrepair. But the most endearing, and obvious, nod to its circus roots is Circus World, which was opened as a historic and educational complex in 1959 by the Ringling family’s personal attorney — John M. Kelley. The oldest collection of original circus structures is also brought out for the Great Circus Parade — a street procession worthy of at least a double take.
5. Bemidji, Minnesota: Paul Bunyan, Curling and the Mississippi
Paul Bunyan is alive and well in this city of 12,000 in north-central Minnesota. In 1937, the city commissioned an 18-foot-tall likeness of the legendary logging king and a 5-ton statue of his trusty blue ox Babe, to be constructed on the city’s riverfront. Bunyan was actually modeled after a former mayor. Incidentally, the town, which has a Bunyan-themed curling competition, is known as the “Curling Capital of the U.S.” There could be something to this: In the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, half the members of the U.S. curling team hailed from Bemidji. When the men’s team took home the bronze, students from the local university adorned big Babe with a smashing bronze medal of her own. By the way, the town, located near the headwaters of the Mississippi River, also proclaims itself the “first city on the Mississippi”? Perhaps we should add one more title. “Bemidji: Town of Titles.”
4. Clarksdale, Mississippi: Birthplace of the Blues
Legend has it that a young guitar player named Robert Johnson once sold his soul to the devil in return for musical talent at the crossroads of highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The noted blues musician, like most tormented artists, gained fame after his untimely death at the age of 27, and people continue to flock to the crossroads, which is now marked by guitar replicas. Interestingly, May 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Johnson’s birth date (which has never been firmly established); in turn, the nearby town of Greenwood is hosting a centennial celebration about all things related to this mysterious figure. Johnson isn’t the only notable figure to have played Clarksdale’s haunts; Muddy Waters’ former juke joint still stands, as does the building where W.C. Handy collected blues songs. It’s also the (disputed) “World Capital of Blues” — touting an historic blues district, the Delta Blues Museum and the Ground Zero Blues Club (owned by Morgan Freeman).
3. Riverside, Iowa: Future Birthplace of James T. Kirk
There are “Birthplaces of …” signs all over America, but can you have a “Future Birthplace of …”? Apparently so, according to the good people of Riverside, Iowa. The town of fewer than 1,000 residents in the southeastern part of the state markets itself as the place Captain James T. Kirk will be born in 2233. After consulting with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who wrote that Kirk was born in Iowa, city leadership birthed this moniker in the 1980s. Since then, The Voyage Home — Riverside History Center has been established, which includes a Star Trek-inspired sci-fi room. The town also boasts an annual TrekFest with a very down-to-earth objective: to raise funds for community causes, including scholarships and playground equipment.
2. Pikeville, Kentucky: The City That Moves Mountains
Don’t try to “one-up” the 6,200 residents of Pikeville – a town nestled in the easternmost reaches of the Bluegrass State. After all, their forefathers literally moved a mountain. After suffering from decades of devastating flooding, a project of massive proportion was undertaken — the Pikeville Cut-Through. The project, which started in 1973 and ended nearly 14 years later, involved moving an entire mountain, and rerouting a river, highway and railroad to alleviate flood risk and make way for smart redevelopment. With that, Pikeville became home to the world’s second-largest earth-moving project — which the New York Times coined “the eighth wonder of the world.”
1. Gibsonton, Florida: Showtown USA
Every town has a “colorful character.” But Gibsonton, located just 20 miles south of Tampa, was full of ’em. Also known as “Showtown USA,” it became the winter fishing home for carnival and sideshow workers in the 1940s. At one time, an 8-foot-tall husband ran a restaurant with his 2-and a half-foot-tall wife, while a dwarf served as police chief alongside an 8-foot-tall fire chief. It’s said this was the only town to have a special counter for dwarves at the local post office, and its special zoning laws — which allow for carnival rides and circus animals to be housed on residents’ property — remain in effect. Many performers have passed away, but you might still be able to find old carnival equipment in yards — and performers still flock to the International Independent Showmen’s Association Trade Show each February. Visitors can also check out the Museum of the American Carnival, featuring historic wagons, rare games, rides and other fare from Gibsonton’s past.