Nearby I spotted an automobile with a Nebraska license plate, or more properly a "vehicle registration plate" I supposed. That wasn’t an everyday occurrence here in the Mid-Atlantic more than 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometres) from that Midwestern state. Often I’ve wondered what would bring a driver such a long distance from his home after I’ve spotted such an unusual plate. In the Washington, DC area it was generally someone serving in the military at one of the many local bases, although now I’ve started going down a tangent. Back to the point, it reminded me of one particularly fascinating feature of Nebraska’s plates, that they traditionally contained not-so-secret geographic codes within the identification scheme. That beautiful pattern began to break down in recent years and I’ll get to that in a moment.
NEBRASKA 1954 and 1965 —TRAILER LICENSE plates by Jerry “Woody” on Flickr (cc)
One could, and to a degree can determine the county where the driver lived when the vehicle was first registered. The state began issuing county-coded plates in 1922 and fixed its pattern on the current population. All plates issued within the most populous county began with with the number 1 and so on down to the 93rd county. The current enumeration at that time was the 1920 Census so Douglas County grabbed number 1 with with 204,524 residents. That made sense. The city of Omaha fell within Douglas County and it had a lot of people. Number 2 went to Lancaster County with 85,902 residents. Again, that made sense. Lancaster contained Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, and naturally it had a lot of people too. The pattern continued all the way down to remote Hooker County with a mere 1,378 residents in 1920, designated thereafter with the number 93. Interestingly enough, that was the largest population Hooker County ever had; there were only 736 people living there in 2010.
Thus, in the image of the vintage Nebraska license plates displayed above, one could surmise that the top plate would have been registered to a vehicle in Douglas County (1) and the lower plate would have come from Keith County (68) towards the western side of the state.
Omaha by Pat Hawks on Flickr (cc)
I’ve never lived in Nebraska although I spent significant time there for maybe a five year period ending about a dozen years ago. I got pretty good at memorizing the license plate codes for counties surrounding Omaha because I’d see them fairly regularly. That’s why I was sad to hear about changes to the system as I researched this article. The system was already starting to break down because of specialty plates (a new one was announced just a few days ago to mark the state’s sesquicentennial) and personalized plates. However I’d stumbled upon a more direct assault, Nebraska Revised Statute 60-370.
I guess one could blame Nebraska’s growing popularity, particularly along the expanding edges of Omaha and Lincoln. Reserving the first digit for a 1 or a 2 would limited the number of unique combinations available on the rest of the plate. Plus there was Sarpy County to further complicate the situation. It’s diminutive 1920’s population earned Sarpy a lowly 59 on the list. It’s become a booming Omaha suburb in recent decades, growing at a 20% pace, with nearly a hundred and sixty thousand residents by 2010. Sarpy more than anything else blew the entire basis of the old code to pieces. The third most populated county in the state still had code 59.
The statute was revised to read:
… registration of motor vehicles or trailers in counties having a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants or more according to the most recent federal decennial census shall be by an alphanumeric system rather than by the county number system.
Certainly, the vast preponderance of Nebraska counties by number retained their geographic codes. However the set of counties with the biggest chunks of people switched to boring three-letter / three-number patterns found just about everywhere else. I took a quick look at Nebraska counties with "a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants or more" (i.e., Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy) and compared them against the state as a whole. Those three counties alone accounted for an astounding 54% of Nebraska residents. The remaining 46% were spread amongst the other 90 counties!
I also learned that several other states had license plate coding schemes that identified counties to one degree or another. Wikipedia had the details although not contained on a single page. I’ve done the hard work so readers won’t have to hunt for the information themselves.
Geographic codes may be more common outside of the United States. I know that one could tell the home registration of vehicles in Ireland by an alphabetic code as I’d observed when I was over there last summer. For example, one could easily identify most of the tourists in Killarney because their automobiles had a "D" in the middle position of the plate. That meant the vehicle came from Dublin and was likely picked-up as a rental car when the visitor landed at Dublin Airport. It also meant that it might be an American not used to driving on the left side of the road. Proceed with caution!
My recent trip to western North Carolina was like the gift that kept on giving of Twelve Mile Circle article ideas. Sadly I’ve reached the end of the line on that thread so this will be the last article that contains a connection to that earlier adventure. As noted in a prior installment, I enjoyed walking around Asheville in the early morning before the town woke up. I discovered all sorts of interesting nooks as I wandered aimlessly down deserted streets. One was the Thomas Wolfe House on Spruce Street, included as part of the museum complex at 52 N. Market Street (map).
Thomas Wolfe Memorial (my own photo)
This inviting structure has been designated as the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site, the childhood home of the author. The Queen Anne style home served as a boardinghouse operated by Wolfe’s mother. He used it as a backdrop for his thinly veiled 1929 autobiographical novel, "Look Homeward, Angel." That distinction certainly made it a property worth preserving. It occurred to me that oftentimes a famous person’s adult home might be preserved while his or her childhood home might be neglected, with notable exceptions of course. Certainly preservation made sense here.
Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum Properties by Missouri Division of Tourism (cc)
Another place where I thought preservation made sense was the Mark Twain Boyhood Home at 206-208 Hill Street, in Hannibal, Missouri (map). Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, drew upon his youthful memories from Hannibal for some of his novels. These included actual locations associated with people who inspired major fictional characters such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher.
That was all fine and appropriate. However I wanted to bring the concept into the present. I wondered if there were people of more recent vintage whose childhood homes might someday become national historic landmarks. Where would tourists flock and stand in line to walk through rooms where a notable person once lived as a child? The big one of course was Elvis Presley, and for him that distinction had already been achieved. I wrote about Elvis’ early childhood shotgun-shack in Tupelo, Mississippi in The Cult of Elvis back in 2009. After Elvis, then the next logical choice might have to be…
Michael Jackson first house by Paolo Rosa on Flicker (cc)
What would be a bigger Thriller than driving down to the corner of 23rd and Jackson Street in Gary, Indiana (map)? The Michael Jackson house probably stood a solid chance of becoming an historic landmark to rival anything from Elvis. It already seemed to be generating cult-like status barely five years after Jackson’s death judging by the numerous photos I saw on the Intertubes. Invariably images showed throngs of people, piles of tributes, a large granite marker and a generally celebratory environment courtesy of pilgrims and devotee that converged there.
Another question remained. Will tourists ever be able to visit Neverland Ranch like they can Graceland?
Kurt Cobain’s Childhood Home; Aberdeen, WA
via Google Street View, October 2012
I moved on to another music icon, albeit from a different genre. Kurt Cobain passed away at the height of success while fronting the band Nirvana, in 1994. One would think that his childhood home might attract the attention of some of his fans, and yet it didn’t seem to resonate much. The real estate website Redfin featured his mother’s property at 1210 East 1st St., Aberdeen, Washington (map) in August 2015, "Kurt Cobain’s Childhood Home Drops in Price, Again."
Kurt Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, just shaved off $71,000 from the price of his childhood home, bringing the new price tag to $329,000… His bedroom, which looks like a converted attic, still has Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin logos that he stenciled on the walls, and holes from where he punched the walls as a teen.
It would seem to demonstrate great provenance and even some residual historic significance given the doodles and damage. It remained unsold as of a few days ago.
Sandra Bullock’s Childhood Home; Arlington, VA
via Google Street View, July 2014
A childhood home might have historical significance even if the celebrity who lived there happened to still be living, right? I selected Sandra Bullock solely because she lived fairly close to where I live today in Arlington, Virginia. In fact my children will someday attend the same high school that she attended during her formative years, Washington-Lee. Bullock spent most of her childhood at 2925 26th Street North in the Woodmont neighborhood (map). The Arlington County property search website valued the home at $1,241,900 for the 2015 tax year. It also noted that "Bullock John W & Helga M" purchased the property originally in 1966 for $40,000 (and it sold for $1,115,000 in 2005).
Kurt Cobain’s childhood home would be a lot more cost effective for, you know, creepy people who need to own one of those kinds of places.
Originally we’d hoped to travel north to the Thousand Islands region of New York, however we’d waited too long and couldn’t find anywhere decent to stay. I quickly shifted my thoughts to Asheville, North Carolina, a place that had been on my mind for awhile because of its absurdly beautiful concentration of craft breweries and brewpubs. I’ve taken beer-oriented vacations before (Bend, Oregon for instance) and I wanted to replicate that experience at an East Coast destination. We visited tons of great places unrelated to beer too, and those are being chronicled in other entries. This one will be devoted purely to the breweries. I realize that most of the Twelve Mile Circle audience will choose to skip this topic and come back in a couple of days. That’s fine. I’m writing this article for myself and for the small Venn diagram intersection of readers whose interests include both geo-oddities and zymurgy.
We visited sixteen breweries by my count, with photos hitting the 12MC Twitter Site in real time at ridiculous levels even by my own admission. My lifelong brewery visit list clicked up to 330 by the end of the trip, and the map was looking pretty good too.
The pursuit required some advanced planning. I prepared an overly detailed spreadsheet that listed each facility by distance from our rental home along with abundant logistical flourishes. I’m not sure it would benefit the entire Internet to see my handiwork although I’d be glad to share a link with individuals upon request. I also built responsibility into the equation. Visits were evenly spaced throughout the week and many of them were within walking distance of our home. We stuck primarily to shared 4-ounce sampler glasses. Rarely did we consume more than the equivalent of a single pint at any given location. This was about tasting the craftsmanship that went into each batch. Oddly, I wouldn’t feel it necessary to post a similar disclaimer if we’d gone on a wine tasting excursion. However, beer has a certain reputation with the general public even when people approach it from an appreciative perspective.
Many communities could prosper if they embraced beer tourism. I know we pumped a considerable amount of money into the Asheville economy: a one-week home rental; groceries; restaurant meals; tourist attractions; fuel and of course a string of purchases at several of the area breweries. The economic benefits from our family of four extended far beyond the breweries themselves. Multiply that by thousands of people and it could become a true financial force as I’m sure Asheville has already noticed.
A special acknowledgment had to go to Highland Brewing, the very first brewery opening in Asheville all the way back in 1994. It’s grown considerably larger since those humble beginnings and now Highland has a large production brewery on the edge of town. They’ve added a large tasting room plus an outdoor stage and biergarten for summer weekends. Highland sparked the whole scene and placed Asheville on the short list of cities with the highest per capita number of breweries, putting it on par with parts of Oregon. Of course we had to include Highland on our list of visits.
Very Smallest to Very Largest
The scene attracted newcomers of all dimensions. The smallest contender seemed to be the One World Brewing nanobrewery (map). The entire brewing operation fit within a corner of a single room, just a step removed from what an ambitious homebrewer might create in his garage. The operation had the feeling of a speakeasy. In downtown Asheville we followed a sandwich board to the end of a nondescript alley where we walked through a darkened doorway, then down a couple of flights of industrial stairs into a mysterious subterranean space below a burger restaurant. We entered a dimly lit room with a bar at one end, the aforementioned brewing equipment and some dartboards and such. Somehow the proprietors managed to keep several beers on tap at all times using their tiny 1.5 Barrel system. I felt like the brewers were living the dream, cranking out batches during the day and operating like a bar in the evening in their bare-bones basement far below street level.
Big guys stood at the far end of the spectrum. Oskar Blues opened its huge East Coast brewery down the road in Brevard in late 2012 (map). We made a detour to Oskar Blues because I’d never been to Transylvania County before. Seriously, North Carolina had a county named Transylvania, otherwise I probably would have stopped at the new Sierra Nevada brewery that opened just this summer out by the Asheville Regional Airport instead. Those two will be joined by New Belgium in early 2016. Clearly the heavyweights have noticed Asheville and like what they see.
Many of the Asheville breweries packed into a single, small quadrant called the South Slope, finding shared synergy instead of direct competition. They were located immediately south of downtown on downward slope, thus the name. I created the map above not as a suggestion to hit all eight breweries in a single effort — that may be technically feasible albeit likely irresponsible — rather, to show their relative proximity and density. The entire path I drew stretched only a mile. Clustered all together were: Wicked Weed; Catawba; Green Man; Burial Beer; Twin Leaf; Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium; Hi-Wire and Asheville Brewing. Doubtless if some random Intertubes wanderer finds this page a year from now there will be others.
I thought hard about which of the many photos I took would represent the wide variety of South Slope breweries. Ultimately I selected the above image from Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium (map). This is where the brewery ran its Barrel Program of aged and blended, funky and sour beers. Notice the shape of the glasses on the bar and the color of the beverages. It was the only place in Asheville that we visited twice during our trip. If I return again it will be to visit the Funkatorium.
Other photos of note included the mural of Tom Tom Selleck with Sloth from the Goonies at Burial Beer because it amused me and the beautiful sampler tray at Catawba.
Outside of the Area
We also hit a select few breweries on the way to Asheville and on our way home. I chose a photo from Lost Province Brewing in Boone, North Carolina (map) because it had an interesting geographic story, and 12MC purports to be all about geography even if this article deviates from the theme. As noted in Appalachian History,
North Carolinians for many decades thought of them as the Lost Provinces. Prior to the early 20th century, Ashe, Alleghany, and Watauga counties were hemmed in and separated from the rest of the state by the Eastern Continental Divide— average elevation 2,500 to 3,000 feet— which forms their eastern and southern borders. Lowlanders joked that the only way to get there was to be born there.
In tribute, the brewery included a compass rose in its logo to help people find those Lost Provinces.
I had to leave out lots of noteworthy breweries we visited because of space limitations. Feel free to check my Flickr album if you still need to see a crazy amount of Western North Carolina brewery photos.
Western North Carolina articles: