Itasca County Homegrown Potatoes
Whatever you call them, potatoes have been a staple at the table for generations. As land was cleared in Itasca County, one of the crops that didn’t need to be planted in rows, surviving among the fallen tree trunks and uneven terrain, was potatoes.
By the end of the first decade of 1900, farmers here were growing enough potatoes to have a substantial surplus and the Cooperative Growers Association shipped the first carload of potatoes, 1,000 bushels, to Duluth. “…The potatoes were neatly done up in two bushel sacks bearing the imprint of the association. The spuds came from the farms of C.A. Buell, John G. Fraser, Wm. Hoolihan, A.M. Sisler, J. Affeck, Wm. Wheaton and Niles & Aiton. The potatoes were shipped to Duluth where they will be disposed of to wholesalers.” [Bigfork Settler 4-7-1910]
At about this same time, farmers in the Yakima Valley, Washington, were unable to sell their potato crops because the potatoes they were growing were simply too large, and thus were fed to the hogs. The Northern Pacific Railroad’s dining car superintendent Hazen Titus experimented with the two-to-five-pound potatoes and discovered they were delicious after baking in a slow oven.
“Titus contracted to purchase as many potatoes as the farmers could produce that were more than two pounds in weight. Soon after the first delivery of ‘Netted Gem Bakers,’ they were offered to diners on the North Coast Limited beginning in early 1909. Word of the line’s specialty offering traveled quickly, and before long it was using ‘the Great Big Baked Potato’ as a slogan to promote the railroad’s passenger service. Hollywood stars were hired to promote it… Premiums such as postcards, letter openers, and spoons were also produced to promote ‘The Route of the Great Big Baked Potato’; the slogan served the Northern Pacific for about 50 years.” [streamlinermemories.info]
Back in Itasca County there was talk of building potato warehouses because in1916 the manager of the Minneapolis & Rainy River Railway stated that they would construct a potato warehouse and buy spuds at any station that could guarantee 5,000 bushels a year. Entrepreneur George Durkee considered several locations between Grand Rapids and Floodwood.
When the United States entered the First World War, farmers were encouraged to plant whatever they could to ensure a surplus for the soldiers.
Urge Potato Planting ~ Itasca News 3-30-1918
“Fearing many farmers will shun the potato crop this year because of the present low price and last year’s financial loss, the agricultural committee of the Northern Minnesota Development Association is urging all to plant more potatoes again this year. The following circular has been sent out signed by the committee.
The agricultural committee of the Northern Minnesota Development Association, after carefully considering all phases of the present potato situation, wishes at this time to advise all potato growers of Northern Minnesota to plant this season at least the usual acreage of potatoes for the following reasons:
1st – The potato crop is the safest staple food crop grown for market in this territory. There has never been a general failure of the potato crop in Northern Minnesota.
2nd – It will produce more human food per acre than any other staple crop suited to our conditions of soil and climate, which is important in the face of the present world food shortage.
3rd – The surplus of potatoes still in the hands of the growers can be utilized in no better way than planting them.
4th – We believe that the adverse situation in the potato market this spring will react to our advantage next fall in that the present glutted market will discourage the growing of potatoes in districts where the crop is of only secondary importance. With us the potato crop is the main crop for market, and we believe that this is the time to stay in the game.
5th – The potato growers of the Central and Southern states are just awakening to the fact that Northern Minnesota potatoes are the best seed potatoes on the continent.”
To ensure the soldiers were properly fed, the Federal Food Administration recommended that homemakers substitute the wheat with at least 20 percent of other grains in their baking. Their list included corn flour and corn meal, barley flour, graham, buckwheat, oatmeal, rice and rice flour, and potato flour. The following recipe doesn’t have potato flour, but certainly contains enough potatoes to meet the recommendation.
Potato Yeast Bread
“Take three cupfuls of hot mashed potatoes, firmly packed when measured, two teaspoonfuls each of salt, fat and sugar, a half a yeast cake dissolved in a fourth of a cupful of lukewarm water, and six cupfuls of wheat flour. Put a third of a cupful of hot water with the potatoes, mix well; add the yeast and one cupful of flour; knead or stir in the flour at first, adding one cupful at a time; it will be very stiff at the last, but with good kneading it will be smooth. The second kneading, because of the moisture in the potato, will be soft; add no more flour. When it is light, bake in a moderate oven one hour. This makes loaves of moist palatable bread. And potatoes contain about 80 per cent water, if no water is used, four cupfuls of flour will be sufficient, but it will take patience to knead it, but the results will be good.” [Itasca News 4-27-1918]
Boys and Girls Garden Clubs throughout the county planted a variety of vegetables, including potatoes. In 1919, the La Prairie Club was recognized as state champions for their 1918 harvest. The members grew 346 bushels per acre and were awarded $20 by the Northern Minnesota Development Association.
A Potato Warehouse for Deer River ~ Itasca News 12-27-1919
“George Durkee, the potato dealer who bought some spuds of the local farmers this fall, was here this week and announced to The News that he had made permanent plans for putting in a potato warehouse here. As to the matter further, the Grand Rapids Herald Review says:
‘There is no question about the future of Itasca County as a potato producing county. This is readily seen from the fact that George Durkee, local potato dealer, has made arrangements to build a potato warehouse at Deer River. The site is next to the King Lumber company’s new location. The new warehouse is to be 32×70 feet with a full basement. The building will have a capacity of 20 carloads of potatoes and will be one of the best on the line, this side of Duluth.
Mr. Durkee has potato warehouses at Grand Rapids, Cohasset, Rabey, Mississippi Landing, Floodwood, and at Warba, besides buying centers where warehouses are leased at several other points. Other vegetables of all kinds besides potatoes will be bought and stored here. Work on the new location will be started in the spring.’”
Bigger & Better
By June 1920 the dirt work for the potato warehouse at Deer River had started. The Itasca News reported, “It is to be 30×72 feet in size and will have a modern system of heating for cold weather storage. Mr. Durkee was here to start the engineers and workman on the job and stated to the paper that besides potatoes and vegetables he will buy all the blueberries the people wish to bring in; also that he will have a big motor truck here and where pickers have enough berries gathered he will drive out after them. The blueberry crop promises good again this year, and the promises of a good local market will be good news to many settlers and Indians.
Mr. Durkee has potato warehouses at different points along this line of the Great Northern and he says the one here will be the largest and best of any of them. He has studied the field and concluded the territory around here is the best in his territory and he calculates on big business in the future.” [Itasca News 6-19-1920]
The fall harvest was indeed excellent, and the warehouse was full. “Potato digging has begun, and it is a fact that never have the spuds attained such a full taste as these. They have not only ripened, but both the red and the white varieties are fully matured. The yield also is larger than seemed a few weeks ago being about normal. Most raisers are storing for future price. There are big yields of corn and if killing frost does not come within two weeks there will be lots of ripe corn here. Fodder is immense and the silos are now being filled with it. With an exceedingly large hay crop, taking all into account this has been a very successful year for local farmers.” [Itasca News 9-18-1920] The potato warehouse building still stands, it was last used as the recycling center.
In October 1925 two farmers brought their potato specimens to the Itasca News office to be measured and weighed. Jesse Cartwright of Deer River brought in four Carmine potatoes weighing a total of 7 ½ pounds, the largest weighing 2¼ pounds. He stated he has about 200 bushels.
A week later, Charlie Tervo of Bowstring brought in a potato that weighed exactly 2½ pounds. It was 7½ inches long and 6¼ inches at the widest point. The distance around it was 21¾ inches. It would take just two dozen of them to make a bushel, and at present prices they would be worth 50c a dozen.
Itasca Tubers Cop the Honor ~ Itasca News 9-9-1926
“Itasca County again demonstrated that it has a crop that no one else in the state can equal. The county made a clean sweep in potatoes at the state fair this week. Both the farmers and the boys’ and girls’ club work department carried off premier honors.
E.S. Brown of Warba entered a peck of Bliss Triumphs that took grand champion sweepstakes. In this variety the county also won a clean sweep, copping off 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places.
In the Green Mountain variety C.E. Featherstone of Goodland took first place. Again, Itasca County made a clean sweep, winning 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and fifth honors.
Jim Neubauer of Wabana won a 1st in the King variety. This class again copped first place for this section with only three entries, taking 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.
These potatoes will undoubtedly take prizes wherever they are exhibited. Let’s keep pushing Itasca County to the front in all fields of work and then view the results with satisfaction.”
NOTE: Part 2 of Spuds, Taters, Murphies, Tubers, Goobers or Ground Apples will be featured in the January Reminisce column. George Kremer of Grand Rapids had experimented with growing new potato types for years, and eventually produced the ‘White Gold Potato,’ which made Itasca County famous. Kremer’s potato knowledge and history will be the focus of that column.
Beginning in January, the Reminisce column will appear only once a month as I am spending the coming year revising my 1897 family murder as a historical mystery!