Idaho Potato Museum

September 30, 2009

I scrounged through my glove compartment for my secret stash of coins. The small Tupperware container wasn’t hard to find. I was pleased to see I’d also stashed a couple dollar bills in there. It’s something I always recommend, keeping a small can or tin of change available. It comes in handy at some point, for coffee, or a soda, or a parking meter. This time it would get me into an unusual attraction that I’d spotted along I-15 as I approached Blackfoot, ID. Nestled in the city’s 1912 train depot was my unexpected find: the Idaho Potato Museum.

I admit I was skeptical at first, so much so that I blinked a couple times when I first saw the “Potato Museum” sign. Blasting across Idaho en route to Nevada, I hadn’t planned to make any stops. But my curiosity was too much to bear. What on earth could be in a potato museum? I had to find out.

A kind receptionist greeted me at the desk of the combined museum-gift shop. The entry fee was 3.00, discounted to 2.50 for AAA members. I paid my fee and stepped through the doors into an agricultural world of wonder.

With topics ranging from the history of the potato to harvesting techniques to the development of farming equipment, the multi-room exhibit offered more than I could have imagined. One glass display case held the world’s largest potato “crisp,” measuring 25 by 14 inches, recorded in the Guiness Book of World Records. Another boasted a colorful collection of potato head dolls, sporting styles that ranged from a Spiderman outfit to a Philadelphia Phillies batting helmet. Other museum cases displayed potato mashers – hundreds of them, in all shapes and sizes.

On the less whimsical side, a variety of potato-oriented antique farm equipment made it clear that the spuds that grace our tables don’t arrive there without hard work on the part of the growers. Long, wooden potato sorters and a hefty burlap sack stitching machine were just two of the many pieces of machinery on display.

Side exhibits included buckets, baskets, crates, and even special shoes designed for preparing the ground for planting. Murals depicted laborers at work in the fields. Burlap sacks on display were plentiful, many with unique designs, all proudly labeling the prized contents.

One educational—and amusing—wall presented cutouts of potatoes with tidbits of potato trivia, giving visitors a few facts to tuck away in cranial corners for future knowledge – or to enjoy for the moment. After all, who hasn’t ever wondered how many 4” French Fries it would take to circle the Equator? The answer, per the display at the Idaho Potato Museum, is 393,779,549.

I couldn’t help spotting a large reproduction of a Marilyn Monroe poster, featuring her posed in the middle of a potato field, wearing a remarkably attractive burlap outfit. Spurred on by a comment a reporter had made that the actress would look good even in a potato sack, her publicity agent devised a clever marketing promotion that featured her in a bag-turned-fashion-outfit from Long Produce in Twin Falls, ID.

A video presentation ran continuously in a center room, giving guests a glimpse into the potato industry from a historical perspective. Noted botanist Luther Burbank is credited with developing Idaho’s most popular potato, the Russet Burbank, which dates back to a single “seed ball” he discovered in New England in 1872.

Several wall-length layouts of photos and captions offered information on various aspects of potato production. One detailed the grading of potatoes for commercial distribution. Another described optimal climate, soil and irrigation factors.

I took a second walk through the museum before leaving, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Sure enough, I had managed to overlook an early twentieth century rodeo queen’s burlap outfit, as well as a potato autographed by Dan Quayle, complete with its own glass display case.

 A bonus for visitors is a complimentary box of hash-browns, handed out in a clever sack-style bag. I tucked this gift away in my car and hit the road, taking with me a little newfound insight into Idaho’s top agricultural industry.