A brief history of struggles and triumph
A big gray building located at 130 N.W. Main Street in Blackfoot was first built by the Oregon Short Line Railroad. Construction began in 1903 and the building was completed in 1913. Later the railroad depot was owned by Union Pacific Railroad. Countless tons of freight and passengers passed through the doors of the railroad station over the years.
A group of people in the potato industry had been talking and brainstorming for years about a way to showcase potatoes and their importance to the local economy. Then Union Pacific donated the old railroad station in Blackfoot to Blackfoot City. The question of what to do with the building was answered by the idea of turning it into a potato museum. That original group of planners was composed of people from all parts of the potato industry in Blackfoot, as well as city and county officials. They had no money, no manpower, and no idea how to make it happen. But they had big dreams.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about the idea. “People won’t come to Idaho just to look at a potato museum”, was a frequently heard comment. Not to be deterred, promotional work was undertaken in the home community of Blackfoot. Arrangements were made for the director of the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming, to come to speak at a general Chamber of Commerce meeting in February, 1988. He addressed the specific topic of specialized museums. This was a well-attended meeting with an upbeat message, “Sometimes we don’t see the gold in our own backyard.”
It was decided to have a “trial” opening that summer of 1988. But first, tons of elbow grease had to be expended to clean the building and get it in shape for use.
The two-week trial opening was held in June 1988. Approximately 2000 people attended, most of them local or from the immediate area. There were no real displays, only dividers borrowed from the Blackfoot School District with ideas written out as to what the planned displays would show.
A local Blackfoot woman, Maureen Hill, volunteered to act as an unpaid director at this time and also for the next year when the Expo was open for tourists. That year some 5000 visitors came through. Most of the initial financial support of the Expo came from the potato industry; Basic American Foods, Nonpareil, local potato growers, and others in the industry. There was also support from the county. The city of Blackfoot, of course, provided the building.
The displays came from three basic sources. First, there were specific items donated by a myriad of people. Second, money was donated specifically earmarked for display improvement. Third, there were corporate donors of money and display items, such as the world’s largest potato crisp donated by Pringles of Proctor & Gamble.
Nancy Batchelder was the first full-time paid director, serving in that position for the next four years. Maureen and Nancy are given credit for deciding to serve baked potatoes as the “free taters for out-of-staters”. The equipment for the kitchen was donated and the freight room was turned into a mini-restaurant. It was difficult to run and never paid its way. A broken pipe during the winter of 2002 caused enough damage that the kitchen had to be closed.
The Spud Seller gift shop started small with a few items taken on consignment. In recent years gift shop items have been purchased from Western Images, as well as those taken on consignment. This provides a greater variety of merchandise with a potato or Idaho theme.
In May of 2002, Mayor Scott Reese approached Blackfoot Chamber of Commerce executive director Merlin Wright about the possibilities of the Chamber taking over the operation of the Expo and moving the Chamber offices into the building. After considerable discussion with all parties involved, the move took place in mid-June 2002.
Under the direction of the Chamber of Commerce, a new board of directors for the Potato Museum, Inc., has been appointed. Staff members are on hand to greet visitors and handle gift shop sales. The Expo is now open year round instead of the previous schedule of Memorial Day through Labor Day. Some changes have been made to the interior to accommodate the needs of the Chamber offices.
The future of the Idaho Potato Expo is promising. New ideas are being implemented to promote it as a museum of interesting artifacts, and more importantly, as a learning center about the potato industry.
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