Idaho History

Spuds across the U.S.: Early Idaho farmers had surplus of potatoes, needed buyers

Early Idaho farmers could grow far more potatoes than they could sell, and had to haul them to anyplace where there was a demand. In September 1890, Jud Moore took a large load of potatoes to the mining town of Banner, where he sold them for 2.5 cents per pound.

When a farmer named Bessinger from Star came to Boise at Christmas in 1893, he told the Idaho Statesman that his section of the country “was capable of producing an enormous quantity of potatoes, but lack of a market curtails the acreage. He is willing to contract to supply any amount next year at the railroad at very low figures.”

By 1897 the Statesman was able to headline a news item, “BIG MONEY IN POTATOES. Fifty Dollars an Acre Cleared in This Valley.” A young man named C.L. Clayton had made $2,000 on land near Meridian that was covered with sagebrush only the year before. “He has been a resident of Idaho for only a comparative short time but is an example of what the enterprising farmer can accomplish in this, the farmer’s paradise.”

“He, in conjunction with two others, put in 100 acres in potatoes this year. Mr. Clayton himself has 40 Acres. This land was in sagebrush last year and had to be cleared off this spring. To cover the cost of planting the potatoes it was necessary to borrow money. The crop of potatoes is now being gathered, and Mr. Clayton is reaping the benefits of judicious farming. The entire crop has been sold to Omaha parties at 45 cents per hundred, delivered at Sonna Station (an Ada County railroad siding named for Boise Mayor Peter Sonna.) A considerable acreage of the crop has been gathered and is turning out 250 to 275 bushels per acre. The cost per acre of raising the big tubers was about ten dollars and they are netting their owner approximately $50 per acre.

“The potatoes command the highest price on the Omaha market. It is said that Idaho potatoes bring 50 per cent more than those from any other locality. The dealers take Mr. Clayton’s output without any sorting at 45 cents per hundred, which is equivalent, he says, to receiving 65 cents for it in Boise.”

In October 1892, the Statesman ran an item headed “Mining Gold from a Potato Patch,” about a farmer near American Falls who was said to be making from $500 to $1,000 a month by panning gold on his potato lands.

In January 1911, H.C. Lucas, of Pocatello, came to Boise and told the Statesman of his work collecting seed potatoes from four other states. “I find that there is a growing demand for Idaho potatoes in every part of the United States, even in Wisconsin and other states which have been known as potato states, there is a ready market for potatoes grown here, as they are the best that can be obtained anywhere.” Utah and Colorado were accused that year of selling their potatoes under the Idaho name.

In May 1926, the Statesman asked, “Where Do Idaho Potatoes Go?” A map showed that 33 of the nation’s 48 states had received shipments of the now famous Idaho potato in 1924, with 2,585 carloads going to Los Angeles alone and 1,163 carloads going to Chicago.

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

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