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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Travels in small towns in North America

By Richard White, February 9, 2014

It is ironic that in December I picked up Stuart McLean’s 1991 book “Welcome Home: Travels in small town Canada” in a Maple Creek SK thrift store and the first story is in fact about his stay in Maple Creek.  It was also ironic as 2013 turned out to be “Year of Small Town Travel” in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Montana, Idaho and Washington for Brenda and I.

For us, visiting a small towns is mostly just pulling off the highway and taking an hour or so to flaneur the streets, take some pictures, maybe grab a bite or a coffee and chat a bit with one or two locals.

McLean, much more strategic, carefully researched his small towns – Maple Creek (Saskatchewan), Dresden (Ontario), St. Jean de Matha (Quebec), Sackville (New Brunswick), Foxwarren (Manitoba), Naksup (British Columbia and Ferryland, (Newfoundland).  He chose carefully to ensure that collectively, the towns would reflect that diversity that is Canada’s sense of place.  

He also went and lived for a couple of weeks in each town, so he could meet the residents and truly understand the psyche of the people and place.  This all happened in early ‘90s over 20 years ago.

What I loved about the book was the great insights - his and others - that he quotes into understanding the ongoing evolution of our cities and towns, as well as better sense of our collective history as Canadians and North Americans. There are also amazing character sketches for those interested in people.

I thought I would share some of these insights with you accompanied by an image from one of the small towns we visited that related to the McLean’s observations.

From the introduction:

“If there is one aspect of towns and villages that we find remarkable, it is their persistence, their refusal to die out, their staying power.” G.D Hodge and M.A. Qadeer, 1983

“Eventually, I decided that we all live in small towns. Mine happens to be in the heart of a big city.” S. McLean

This is a house on our block just a few doors down.  Like McLean we live in a Calgary, a big city, however it is composed of over 200 small communities of about 5,000 people, each with their own parks, playgrounds, schools, recreation and community centres. Not that much different than the small towns McLean visited. 

Maple Creek, Saskatchewan

“Asians didn’t get the right to vote in Canada until the late 1940s.”

“When she was twelve, Pansy rode (horseback) five and half miles across the fields every day to a one-room schoolhouse…there were lots of deer, antelope and coyotes.” (And we complain about kids taking long bus rides to get to school today)

McLean talks about a Chinese restaurant in his book; this might be it.  Had a great soup and grilled cheese.  GA writes: "you may want to add the nearby winery, yep I do mean winery.  Most of the wine is made from berries and Rhubarb, but they also grow grapes.  The wines are certainly drinkable and it is fun to produce for visiting guests. Their wine tastings are professionally done."

Dresden, Ontario

“Dresden is where Aylmer manufactures all of the ketchup they produce in Canada.”

“Canada is not merely a neighbor to Negroes. Deep in our history of struggle for freedom Canada was the North Star. The Negro slave, denied education, de-humanized, imprisoned on cruel plantations, knew that far to the north a land existed where a fugitive slave, if he survived the horrors of the journey could find freedom.” Martin Luther King Jr., Massey Lectures, 1967

Did you know that Josiah Henson a slave who escaped to Canada and settled in Dresden was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“The bell at the firehall used to ring at noon and at nine in the evening to signal curfew for all those under the age of fourteen.  The bell at the old McVean factory rang at starting time and quitting time and, like all the other bells in town, at the noon break.  You don’t hear town bells the way you used to. It is too bad. A bell lends a certain orderliness to a town – anoints the noon meal with righteousness, resolves the end of the work day with dignity, infuses dusk with a sense of purpose.”

“There’s also a certain continuity that you don’t get anywhere else. Everyone in school knows everyone else. Most of the parents come from here. The continuum is passed along.”

While I didn't travel to Dresden, I did get to Clarkesdale, Mississippi which is home to the Delta Blues and to Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Both are cities in decline, but with a  proud history that they celebrate vigorously. 

This is the J.W. Cutrer Mansion in Clarkesdale.  The Cutrers and their home inspired the character names and settings in several works by playwright Tennessee Williams. This small town is an interesting study in contrasts between the rich and the poor that has existed for decades - it is not something new. 

Just one of many homes that are slowly peeling away. 

This is the entrance to Ground Zero Blues Club, one of the most authentic and famous blues bars in the world.  The entire inside of the club is like this with people signing their names on every wall, everywhere.  It is a work of art. 

Who knew when I picked up this used book in the spring of 2013 that I would be in the Mojo Man's home turf early in 2014.

St-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec

You can see winter in the architecture wherever you look – the old houses small because they were easier to heat; the brightly painted roofs, pitched steeper here than anywhere in the country, because if you let snow accumulate all winter your roof would collapse before spring.” 

We discovered the ghost town of  Washtucna, while on our way see the off the beaten path Palouse Falls Washington.  We don't usually seek out natural wonders, but we were encouraged to do so and in the process we found Washtucna. I did not realize the potlatch culture extended this far south or east, I had always associated it with Pacific Northwest first nations. Every small town has a story to tell. 

We tried to get into Sonny's but despite the sign it wasn't open. 


Ted's Garage has become the town's post office. In "Welcome Home" you will read how important the post office was in small towns even in the early '90s.

Sackville, New Brunswick

“This is a town that understands tradition…Mrs. Helen C. Beale wouldn’t think of going downtown to mail at letter without putting on a dress, white gloves and a hat.”  “the driving factor behind the new clock tower is that public’s displeasure with not having a clock in the downtown core.”

“Like all small towns, Sackville’s greatest export is her people.”

Our equivalent to McLean's Sackville was Moscow, Idaho, also a university town and this was one of our favourite breakfast spots. Check out the Huckleberry Zucchini Bread or the Lemon Poppy Seed french toast.  We will be back!

The students loved Bucer's Coffee House and Pub....we did too.  Great ambience

Every college town needs a quirky bike shop - Paradise Bikes was Moscow's. 

Yes there is a new clock tower on campus. It also has a great indoor football stadium and one of the world's best climbing wall facilities. Of the 9,000 students, 6,000 live on campus with an 18 to 1 student to teacher ratio. 

Our dinner at the Sangria Grill may well have been our best meal of 2013.  We could show you an image of our plate but the ceiling is way more exciting. Loved the circus dolls. The menu is very interesting e.g. Macadamia coconut halibut mango salsa fried banana rice.  Desserts are to die for e.g. sweet potato creme brulee or coconut bread pudding with lucuma ice cream. Yum Yum!

Foxwarren, Manitoba

“In western Canada, prosperity is calculated in units of verticality. Oil rigs, grain elevators and silos measure the land.”

“first grain elevator in Canada was built in Gretna, Manitoba, in 1881.”

“you hate to see your home town go. But there is nothing you can do to stop it going. You can’t survive on a small farm anymore.”

“Donna Hodgson is the postmistress, and she is the sixth person (three men, three women) to hold the job since the post office opened on August 1, 1889.”

The Foxwarren arena illuminates Foxwarren the way the Roman Catholic Church used to illuminate Quebec. Hockey in Foxwarren is a faith, a theology and a creed. In Foxwarren you don’t go tot eh game as much as you give yourself to The Game. You don’t enjoy hockey. You believe in it… if you live in Foxwarren you can’t escape the arena’s gravity.”

“Like many old men, Andy has become the embodiment of a better era – living proof that the stories everyone has heard actually happened. With his old age he blesses everyone else with youth.”

“At the turn of the century and for thirty years after that, the tracks on these prairies were haunted by the most romantic train in Canadian history – the silk train. Silk that arrived in Vancouver by boat had to be shipped to the Lakehead quickly… they were given priority over all other trains on the tracks.  Once a train carrying Prince Albert (later George VI) was shunted onto a siding to wait while a silk train burned past.”

Meeting Creek, Alberta was our encounter with the great spirit of the prairie Grain Elevator.  It was surreal to just be able to explore this perfectly preserved elevator and station with nobody around. 

You can't make something like this up.

Nakusp, BC

“Left alone in a museum, it doesn’t take much to make a grown man twelve. Wondering vaguely what I will say if someone walks in, I climb into the saddle and lean on the saddle-horn as I read the typed note pinned to the wall. The horse that Tom Thee Persons rode to fame was known as Cylcone.”  Who knew this piece of Calgary’s Stampede history is housed in the Nakusp Museum?

While we didn't have a saddle to sit on.  Brenda has a similar experience when we were exploring Twin Falls, Idaho and she found this pencil dispenser in the library.  She had to try it. Not once but twice.  It doesn't take much to make a grown women twelve. 

We also found this display of Red Rose Tea figurines at the library.  There were several series but the Canadian Series caught our interest. Who knew the Mongrel was a Canadian animal? 

These dolls were fastened to posts throughout the city, at first it was cute then just strange. 

Twin Falls is one of the few places in the world that you can BASE jump without a permit.  We had to wait around for a bit but we did see several guys jump.  If you look carefully you can see a speck of blue where the bridge shadow meets the steel arch at about two thirds of the way to the top of the image - that is a jumper. 

Ferryland, Newfoundland

“Maybe when death is all around you, maybe when everyone’s children are dying, maybe when the winter blows cold and the nights are dark and your ten-year-old daughter gives a little cough and your heart seizes and you look at your husband with frightened eyes and then the priest comes and then she dies, maybe you find a way to make sense of things. But how, after five have gone, could you have a sixth? And how, when your last boy dies, could you plant a crop, go to church, milk a cow, eat a meal, smile, laugh and carry on?”

“Essentially Albert Lawlor drives the Popemobile up and down highway 10 every day.” Yes the same popemobile Pope John Paul II used when he toured North America in September 1984.

“It was a big change. The more people got TV’s, the less you saw of them. Before the TV, everyone depended on everyone else…you visited. You helped each other.”

“If you really want to understand a place, you can’t do it from an automobile.”

One of our best small town experiences of 2013 was when we decided to park our car and walk the streets of Buhl, Idaho. Within seconds I looked over and saw this warehouse with something interesting in a bucket and  on the ground.  Wandering over, we found the warehouse was full of all kinds of antlers and mounted animal heads that were to be shipped all over the world.  We spent over an hour chatting with the guys with the owners.  The street art was the head and part of the carcass of an elk that had been shot by the owners son. Their trailer is perhaps the equivalent of the popemobile.  

Over 150,000 pounds of antlers are collected in this Buhl shop and then sorted and shipped to pet food plants, used for home decor objects etc.  All of the antlers are naturally shed, only the mounted heads are from animals that are shot with permits. 

The Clover Leaf Creamery was another find in Buhl, Idaho.  It is a fully operational dairy that uses the old glass bottles and has a wonderful old fashion ice cream parlour.  It is amazing what you find if you get off the inter-state highways and take the scenic route.  Buhl also had a great thrift store with mid-century artifacts from the community's past.  There was also a theatre converted into a Mexican restaurant which told the story of the present  economic realities. It is amazing what you find if you get out of the car. 

Brenda is in her happy place. 

Last Word

In “Welcome Home” over and over again you read stories about why people love their small towns - the common denominators being everybody knows everybody, nobody locks their doors, shopkeepers work on credit and lamenting the loss of jobs.

Full of everyday stories of everyday people, it is a fun read of what life used to be like whether you lived during that time or not.  I loved McLean’s comment when he was reflecting on the changes in the way hockey is played today vs 50 years ago, “somehow the game seemed purer when I was young.” I expect that applies to everything in the game of life.

We would like to thank the following for their assistance with our small town flaneuring in 2013:

If you like this blog, you might like:

Postcards from Moscow

Meeting Creek Ghost Town

Flaneuring Maple Creek 

Be a tourist in your own neighbourhood 

The Flicks: Best little art house cinema in the west!

By Richard White, January 8, 2014

We stumbled upon The Flicks while flaneuring the Julia Davis Park Cultural District after checking out BAM (Boise Art Museum) – can’t believe we didn’t know about this place given all of our research.  It is tucked away off the beaten path in a bit of a park-like setting at 646 Fulton Street.

Next to the Main Auction (every Saturday), The Flicks has to be the biggest surprise of our Boise adventure.  It has an inviting canopy entrance with a small ticket wicket at the end.  We were immediately welcomed and asked, “How can I help you?” As it wasn’t yet show time, we were welcomed to go inside and explore. 

The Flicks is located off the beaten path with the entrance even more hidden from the average downtown pedestrian. 

The lobby is awash in the red glow of the huge Rick's Cafe American sign, creating a sense of nostalgia. 

Electric & Eclectic

The immediate response was “electric and eclectic” as we were washed in the neon glow of the “Rick’s Café American’ sign.  Still a bit in shock from the glow and the fact the lobby is a coffeehouse meets bistro meets lounge.  The baked goods looked yummy and the selection of beer and wine was very civilized.

We were also taken aback by the dabbling sun on the interior courtyard patio that would be a great place for lunch, meet-up for a coffee anytime of the day, perhaps a happy hour drink or two. And yes, it is a great spot for dinner before or after the movie.  It is a place that invites you to linger and ponder on life’s little details.   

It’s all about the art!

The Flicks established in 1984 was once a single cinema, but over time it has evolved into four cinemas – 192, 96, 55 and 45 seats respectively.  While The Flicks doesn’t have stadium seating, who cares every seat is a good seat.

The audience is knowledgeable and respectful - no chatter, no phones, no texting and no annoying ads. Just a few movie trailers and then get on with the show. 

Wine by the glass, bottles of beer and note there is also draft beer. 

Fireside chats are common place.

Fireside chats are common place.

The Food

When was the last time you were in a cinema complex that offered crème brulee, or the best burgers in town (some consider The Flick’s burgers the best in Boise).  Of course, the best benchmark for a movie house is the popcorn – The Flicks offers three toppings, real butter or tamari or brewers’ yeast.

But there’s more

The Flicks is not just a fun place to watch foreign, independent and art films, nor is it just a coffeehouse, bistro and lounge.  It is also a movie rental store.  Tucked away along the walls as you go to one of the small theatres is one of the best selections of foreign language movies I’ve ever seen. You could spend hours hunting through the titles – it would be like taking a trip around the world without leaving Boise.   

When was the last time you were in a movie rental store that had a good selection of foreign language films.

The interior patio enhances the sense of place. It is like walking into a work of art.

Last Word

We liked it so much that we went back that night to see a movie and liked it so much we went back the next night too!  While many cities have art house cinemas, few are as fun, funky and quirky as The Flicks.

If you are in Boise, it is a must see, must do place.

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