Idaho Potato Museum
The building that currently hosts the Idaho Potato Museum was originally known as the Oregon Short Line Railroad Depot. Construction of the building began in 1903 and finished in 1913. Following completion of the depot, the building was purchased by Union Pacific Railroad.
For several years, a group of local residents involved in the potato industry had discussed strategies for highlighting the importance of potatoes to the local economy, and to showcase potatoes. When Union Pacific Railway donated the Blackfoot railroad station depot building to Blackfoot City, the idea of turning the building into a potato museum was suggested and agreed upon.
- Dean Yancey
- Allan Larsen
- Keith Hinckley
- Brian Finnigan
- Dean Hill
- Walter Gay
- Rex Call
- Claude Johnson
- Maureen Hill
Some members of the local community lacked enthusiasm for the idea, and questioned "why tourists would travel to Idaho to visit a potato museum?". However, the working group was not deterred, and continued to undertake promotional work within the Blackfoot community. In February 1988, the working group invited the director of the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming to speak at a public Chamber of Commerce meeting. He addressed the topic of specialized museums, imparting a message to Blackfoot that “sometimes we don't see the gold in our own backyard.”
As support for the potato museum gained popularity amongst the community, the focus of the working group's discussions involved selecting a name for the museum. Many in the Blackfoot community felt that the term “museum” conjured up negative associations with "dusty, old relics". As the working group processed this feedback, they discussed strategies to ensure that the potato project appealed to a wide range of people; hence, the moniker "Idaho’s World Potato Exposition" (expo) was decided upon.
After many years of disuse, the project site was uninhabitable and had no restroom facilities. A "working-bee" was held to clean the building and prepare it for opening.
A trial opening was held in the summer of 1988, which was attended by approximately 2000 people from the local and immediately surrounding areas. The trial, a success, did not contain any real displays and simply involved a series of divider-style signs with ideas written on them, describing what the planned displays would show.
Consolidating upon the success of the launch, Maureen Hill volunteered to undertake the role of director (unpaid). Hill continued in the directorial role until 1989 when the expo was officially opened for tourists. In its first year of operation, the expo attracted 5000 visitors.
Material and financial donations were provided by:
- the commercial potato industry (including companies, Basic American Foods and Nonpareil)
- local potato growers
- the local community
- the local county
- the city of Blackfoot
Nancy Batchelder, who served in the position for four years, was the first full-time paid director of the potato expo. Batchelder and Hill are credited with the success of the "free 'taters for out-of-staters" campaign. In 2002, Sandi Thomas was appointed director of the expo. At the time, the expo was experiencing severe financial hardship; however, Thomas was able to manage the expo's financial difficulties, ensuring the expo remained operational.
In May 2002, Blackfoot Mayor Scott Reese approached the Blackfoot Chamber of Commerce executive director, Merlin Wright, with a proposal that involved the expo being managed and housed by the Chamber. After discussion, all the parties involved were amenable to the proposal, and staff moved into their offices in June 2002. The Idaho World Potato Exposition corporation was formally dissolved and new papers were drawn up and filed on September 17, 2002. The former expo is now legally known as the Potato Museum, Inc., trading under the name Idaho Potato Expo.
Under the direction of the Chamber of Commerce, a new board of directors for the Potato Museum, Inc. was appointed. Deby Barrington was appointed president of the board, and Merlin Wright served as director for the Idaho Potato Museum, Inc. and Blackfoot Chamber of Commerce. In 2007, Merlin Wright resigned from both positions, and was replaced by Stephanie Govatos. Govatos served as the director for 4 years, before retiring to Florida with her family.
Exhibit displays are donated from a combination of community and commercial sources. One of the most popular displays in the museum is the world’s largest potato crisp, donated by Pringles of Procter & Gamble.
The museum’s exhibits include the world’s largest potato crisp, measuring 25 inches (64 cm), and a timeline history of potato consumption in the US (including the introduction of fries to the White House menu selection during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson). Also on display are Peruvian-made 1,600-year-old vessels that are believed to be the first containers used specifically for potato storage. A Hall of Fame acknowledging significant contributions to the potato industry is also an ongoing feature of the museum.
The Spud Seller gift shop is attached to the museum and offers merchandise with a potato or Idaho theme. The shop was initially a small enterprise that only sold items on consignment; however, in recent years, gift shop items have been purchased from multiple commercial wholesalers, representing a significant growth in the operation of the business.