Idaho History

Tracing our love affair with the potato, a ‘tangible fact’ and ‘truly modest creature’

Clarence E. Bisbee, potato digger and sorter, at the J. B. Keeler Ranch in Twin Falls, courtesy of the Twin Falls Library.
Clarence E. Bisbee, potato digger and sorter, at the J. B. Keeler Ranch in Twin Falls, courtesy of the Twin Falls Library.

Idaho potatoes were not yet famous when a North Idaho reporter noted: “Potatoes – Seth Jones grew 54,000 lbs. of potatoes at his new farm on Three Mile Creek, about a mile above the Hiram Lusk station in the fall of 1863. He sold them to miners for 8 cents per lb.”

Sweet potatoes first appeared in Boise in the fall of 1871. The Idaho Statesman noted that they were “large, rich, and excellent flavored ones. Gen. Cartee has a fine crop of them in his garden.” Lafayette Cartee’s title was not military but came from his appointment as Idaho Territory’s first surveyor general.

In November 1876, the paper reported that “several of the potatoes which Mr. J.B. Whitson presented to this office weighed over three pounds each.” If you wanted to get your name in the paper, a gift to the editor usually did the trick, and later that month: “Mr. I.P. Guile furnished the Statesman with a generous lot of samples from his fine crop of potatoes. They are of the varieties known as the ‘White Nechanic’ or ‘Kidney,’or ‘Bread Potato.’” Guile’s ranch was on the Boise River near the mouth of More’s Creek.

In September 1881, “Spuds – Mr. A.H. Vaughn presented the Statesman with a basket of potatoes which he raised on his place, fourteen miles below town. They are the largest, smoothest, and handsomest potatoes that we have seen in many a day. They were raised on sagebrush land without irrigation, and Mr. Vaughn offers to contract for 20,000 pounds for a cent a pound. He left one of his spuds at Jimmy Hart’s saloon that weighed five pounds.”

“Singing Praises of the Potato,” wrote the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman that year. “The potato is not an ideal article; it is a tangible fact. And what a truly modest creature it is, in its sober russet coat and its snowy interior, with the grateful steam ascending from the plate to tickle the nostrils and bewilder the palate.

“We are proud of it, for it is the most thoroughly native American of all vegetables. It went to England in the ship that carried back the gallant and ill-fated Raleigh, and in common with the tobacco he also took along with him, it forsook its allegiance to Uncle Sam and became the emblem of Irish Fenianism.

“Our own immediate neighborhood is peculiarly adapted to the production of the potato, in such size and of such flavor as would call forth the eloquence of the O’Donoghue himself could he but visit us. In future years, when the railroad shall unite us with tidewater, we shall see Idaho potatoes holding the top figure in the markets of Portland and Astoria, as the invariable accompaniment to their unequaled salmon. From here to Farewell Bend, their modest blue blossoms shall wave over thousands of acres tilled by industrious and intelligent farmers. And a hungry world shall wag its jaws over their mealy lining and bless the name of Idaho.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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