Why Mr. Potato Head loves Blackfoot, Idaho?

There is something about being an “everyday tourist” and liking quirky off the beaten path places.  Last fall, on our road trip through Montana, Idaho and Washington, we unearthed (pun intended) Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho.

Located in the former Oregon Short Line Railroad Depot (130NW Main Street), the museum is as unpretentious as potatoes themselves. No high-tech videos or animated displays here; this is a down-to-earth museum (again pun intended) that you would expect in a small farm town.  But we weren’t – nor should you be – there is something intrinsically charming about its simplicity.

The price is right - $3 for adults, $1 for youth 6 to 12 years old and free for kids 5 and under.  Plan to spend about 45 minutes to an hour watching the films, looking at the displays and reading the interesting storyboards.  Perhaps the museum’s biggest claims to fame are that it has the largest potato crisp ever made by Pringles, as well the original potato planted in Idaho.  

This planter was used from the last 1800s to the early 1900s. 

The Pugh Potato diggers commonly used four horses to pull it.  The chain shook the dirt out to allow the picker to access the potatoes.  Later diggers turned the chain upside down to avoid bruising the potatoes. Chains today are rubberized to avoid bruising even more  Potatoes grow as far as 8 to 10 inches deep. 

Idaho Potato History 101 (source: Idaho Potato Museum website)

Rev. Henry Spalding planted the first potatoes grown in Lewiston in 1836. It was a successful crop, but his missionary work was brought to an end by the Whitman massacre (1847) and the Spaldings were forced to leave in 1850.

Later in the 19th century, Utah pioneers were sent northward to settle other areas, one of which was Cache Valley. Thinking they were still in Utah, they were unaware they had actually crossed the border into the Idaho Territory and began to establish their farms there.

One of these early settlers in Franklin was William “Goforth” Nelson. He recorded, in the summer of 1860, “We all camped in our wagons the first summer, but we all got homes built by winter; these houses were built in the present meetinghouse lot in a fort. I spent the summer working on ditches, canton roads, and hauling poles and wood from the canyon. I raised thirty-three bushels of potatoes, which is all that was raised in Franklin that summer except for a few onions.”

This is the first recorded planting of potatoes in Idaho in an area where the settlers remained and the crop is still grown to some extent today.

The spread of potato agriculture to eastern Idaho was only a matter of time. Henry E. Jenkins was a freighter hauling a load of potatoes from Farmington, Utah, to Blackfoot, Idaho. The recipient of the shipment was Judge Stephens, who was encouraged by the freighter to plant the potatoes, which were believed to be the first planting in the Blackfoot area.

The Blackfoot area quickly became one of the principal potato producing areas in Idaho. Those first Idaho settlers were pioneers mentally as well as geographically as they had the initiative and willingness to better their conditions regardless of physical hardships and uncertain futures. In the river valleys, where water was easily diverted, and with the rich volcanic-ash soil, these hearty people raised a more potatoes than they needed and discovered the extra potatoes were a good cash crop. From this small beginning, Idaho’s farmers set out on the conquest of the potato markets of the United States.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s potato crop estimates for the state of Idaho were first made in 1882, at which time they recorded 2,000 acres harvested, with a total of value of $250,000. In 1904, there were 17,000 acres harvested for $1,328,000.  Eleven years later, in 1915 more than three million dollars was realized from 33,000 acres. Production grew to 16,146,000 hundredweight by 1930 and Idaho potatoes, by then, were gaining their national reputation for baking quality and the higher grading standards of Idaho shippers. Today, 320,000 acres produce approximately 12 billion pounds of potatoes worth almost one billion dollars.


This could well be my favourite poster of 2013.

We both enjoyed the names and graphics of the potato sacks. 

Russet Burbank

The famous Idaho potato, the Russet Burbank, is known as being large, white and delicious. It was developed by Luther Burbank, beginning in 1872 when he planted twenty-three seeds from an Early Rose parent plant. All produced tubers, but one was superior in yield and size. Originally smooth-skinned, the familiar netting is actually a mutant of the Burbank and it is more resistant to blight than the original.

The University of Idaho Research Experiment Station in Aberdeen has provided valuable service in helping the potato industry. First started in 1914, experiments have been carried out concerning optimum distance between rows and plants, seed piece sizes, planting and harvesting equipment, storage facilities, diseases, irrigation practices, and research for new varieties.

These planter shoes were invented and donated by Masa Tsukamoto. The shoes are designed to lift the dry loose soil up and out of the groove it cuts without compacting the soil. The seed piece is deposited into the moist soil ready to sprout and set out new potatoes in a favorable seed bed. 

The Spudnik Loader loaded potatoes from the potato cellar into bulk potato trucks rather than sacks. A potato fork was used to prior to this time to remove potatoes from the pile of potatoes in the cellar.  The loader represents a major step in the efficient loading  and transporting of potatoes. 

Wall of potato masher makes for quirky wall display. 

Yes the museum has a collection of Mr. Potato Heads. 

Fun Facts

  • The potato is 99.9% fat free, yet a nutrient-dense food having more potassium than a banana.
  • Potato chips are the most common snack food in the world – billions of bags are consumed each year.
  • The sweet potato is only a distant relative of the potato. They are a great source of vitamin A, by the way.
  • Pringles are made from mashed potatoes that have been dehydrated and reconstituted into dough and then formed into chips.
  • August 19, 2014 is National Potato Day in USA.
  • The world’s largest potato weighed in at 8 pounds 4 ounces.
  • Mr. Potato Head, the kids toy, was born May 1, 1952.
  • China is the world’s leading producer of potatoes. 

The world's largest potato!

Last Word

There are actually several potato museums around the world - three in Germany, one in Denmark and one in Albuquerque.  Canada’s Prince Edward Island in the town of O’Leary claims to have the world’s largest collection of potato related artifacts. So if you find yourself on Interstate 15 near Blackfoot, Idaho definitely worth the stop is the Idaho Potato Museum.

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