Itasca County Homegrown Potatoes
Note: Part 1 of this two-part story appeared in the December 12, 2021, issue of the Herald-Review. It covered the growth of the potato industry in Itasca County from the turn of the century until the late 1920s.
The Kremer White Gold Potato
George Kremer was one of four adult siblings who in the 1890s moved from Saginaw, Michigan, to the prosperous village of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. George is the one most of us know because of the Geo. F. Kremer store which occupied a city block in Grand Rapids from 1893 until 1991. [Incidentally, in October 2021, his brother Arthur was featured in a two-part Reminisce column Law & Order ~ County Treasurer Embezzled Funds.]
George was a curious man, and the potato farming of his youth never quite left his thoughts. It was probable that in the early 1910s Kremer put the word out to local farmers that he was interested in the “seed balls” that sometimes appeared on the potato plants. Kremer knew that by experimenting with the viability of the seedlings he could develop a new variety of potato.
Having never heard of a potato seed ball, and assuming readers might not either, I did some research. “A potato plant can occasionally sprout what look like a few tomatoes from the main stems above ground. Those aren’t the result of some strange experiment in your garden, but rather the result of potato flowers finally being pollinated. Those round seed pods are also called potato fruit, potato berries and seed balls. They look like green cherry tomatoes and usually appear in small clusters. The interior of a seed pod has up to 500 tiny seeds distributed throughout a mass of moist tissue.” [http://homeguides.sfgate.com/potato-vines-tomatolike-growth-97967.html]
When Kremer was given a seed ball, he saved and planted the seeds. It is thought that hundreds of seedlings were grown and discarded as they did not have the qualities Kremer was looking for. In about 1922 he thought he had a seedling that might have promise. For eight years Kremer grew this new variety in trials. He had the potatoes grown under ordinary conditions by farmer friends George Heinrich of Bass Brook, and Alva Sisler of Grand Rapids. He also had the potato grown on different types of soil in Itasca County. Finally, Kremer was ready to share the potato he felt showed great value. It was clear skinned, white, mealy, grew to good size, and ripened several days in advance of Bliss Triumph or other early varieties grown by Itasca County farmers.
Kremer was pleased with the potato harvest of 1930, especially when his new variety received a first-place prize at the Minnesota State Fair. It was also at the fair that an established nursery took an interest in marketing the variety throughout the state.
May Contract for Kremer Potatoes ~ Deer River News 9-24-1930
“Geo. F. Kremer, originator of the locally famous early white potato, which is known here by his name, is negotiating with the Farmer Seed & Nursery Company of Faribault for the purchase of a large quantity of the potatoes grown here this year. While the deal has not been entirely closed, Mr. Kremer is confident that an agreement will be reached which will be satisfactory to him and to the farmers who have grown the potatoes for him from seed which he originally supplied.
The potatoes were grown in large quantity this year on the Geo. Heinrich farm in West Cohasset. In spite of the dry weather, the potatoes yielded well. Their high quality was attested by the fact that they won first place at the state fair in the “any other variety” class. Representatives of the Farmers Seed & Nursery Company saw them at the fair and opened negotiations for the purchase of a large quantity for sale as seed.
It is anticipated that the seed company mentioned, if successful in getting the selling agency for these potatoes, will have their yearly supply grown in Itasca County, where the potato originated, and where it appears to develop so successfully. Mr. Kremer has been asked to name several good potato growers here who might be willing to grow them for seed under contract with the Faribault firm. A distinctive name will also be selected for this potato which will associate it with Itasca County.” The name chosen was Kremer’s White Gold.
The Farmer’s Seed & Nursery Company is one of six horticultural companies that had a long life in Minnesota. The others are Bachman’s, Bailey Nursery, Jewell Nursery, L.L. May & Company, and Northrup King. Farmer’s was originally founded in Chicago, but when the owners, William F. Kueker and his brother-in-law, Otto Kozlowski realized that most of their sales were to farmers in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, they moved their firm to Faribault in 1893. In 2018, the company closed.
Potatoes are an Itasca County Crop
For many years locally produced Kremer White Gold potatoes were stored, graded and shipped by rail or truck from a warehouse on 4th Street in Grand Rapids. The Cooperative Growers Association of the earlier potato years changed to the Arrowhead Potato Growers Association. It consisted mostly of Itasca County farmers and served as the marketing vehicle for the local producers of all potato varieties.
Since many farmers in the county were growing the new potato, in 1931, the Kremer White Gold was declared a separate category at the Itasca County Fair. White Gold proved a successful yield, as did other varieties, especially in the community of Jesse Lake.
Itasca County has Potato Champion ~ Deer River News 10-15-1931
“Western Itasca County may now claim the residence of the champion potato grower of the world! That’s taking in a lot of territory, but there is nothing lacking in the facts to prove it! E.J. Youngren of Jesse Lake, from his hill selected seed plot, this year harvested a yield of 1,100 bushels to the acre.
The figures are amazing but have been carefully checked and are reliable. So far as is known, records of the nation do not reveal a greater yield at any time. For two years Mr. Youngren has been carefully developing his seed plot of Green Mountains. Last spring, he had enough seed to plant a test row, and when the potatoes were dug recently the yield was at the rate of 1,100 bushels per acre.
And just to prove it was no accident, Mr. Youngren’s main field of potatoes gave a yield of 545 bushels per acre, second highest in Itasca County this year, surpassed only by that of Clair Cole, south of Cohasset, who secured a yield of 585 bushels of Rural Russets.
Mr. Youngren’s remarkable crop was not the only one in his community. Other Jesse Lake farmers gave him a run for his honors. Among them were Lee P. Allen with 426 bushels of Rural Russets, O.B. Bendix with 422 bushels of Green Mountain, Theodore Alzen with 347 bushels of Green Mountains, and Eric Mortenson with 338 bushels of the same variety.
These remarkable yields stamp the Jesse Lake region as outstanding for the growing of potatoes. It has furnished three-seventh of all the growers who thus far have qualified for the ‘300 Bushel Club’ in the county this year. Our hat is off to Jesse Lake!
The Cohasset community is another with a remarkable showing. In addition to the yield of Clair Cole, cited above, Geo. Heinrich grew 402 bushels of Kremers and 397.4 bushels of Green Mountains to the acre. H.H. Keeler 399 bushels of Kremers, Matt Kassler 336 bushels of Rural Russets, R.B. Rasmussen 318 bushels of Green Mountains, and Ed Scherf 312 bushels of Green Mountains.
Chris Erickson of Wendigo, with 357 bushels of Rural Russets and Henry Thaxter of Harris with 330 bushels of the same variety, are other Itasca County growers who qualified for the ‘300 Bushel Club.’”
In 1939 there were sixty-three potato entries in the Itasca County Fair, proving potatoes were still the number one crop in the county. About this same time though, the Kremer White Gold lost its popularity because of its susceptibility to blight. George Kremer remained an active member in the Arrowhead Potato Growers Association until his death in 1942. The following year, the Kremer family established the George F. Kremer plaque for best of show for a display of potatoes at the Itasca County Fair. James Haugen of Pokegama Lake received the plaque in 1943.
Farmers continued to bring big potatoes into the newspaper office. “Victor Sandgren of the Chase Lake neighborhood brought in a huge potato Tuesday that is on display in the window of The News office. The spud is a Sebago, Mr Sandgren says. He bought a small quantity of the potatoes for seed to fill in a small patch of ground, and in marketing the potatoes Tuesday, picked out the large one that is on display. He says that while not all the potatoes were quite that large, all ran exceptionally large. Next week the big spud, which weighs two pounds, six ounces, will be taken home to make a few meals for The News family.” [9-28-1949 Deer River News]
The VanBuren Potato Grader
Along with the growth of the potato industry in Itasca County, there were folks looking for ways to improve on other aspects of the business of growing and selling potatoes. L. Elbert VanBuren was the postmaster of Blackberry from 1918-1942, but he was also a potato farmer and a bit of a tinkerer.
Invents a New Potato Sorter ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 5-29-1929
“L.E. VanBuren of Blackberry has invented a potato sorter which has been declared by potato buyers and others familiar with the automation to be something unique and entirely different. The new grader is arranged on the principle of a crushed stone grading machine and is claimed to work much more satisfactorily than the screen machines now in use where the potatoes are carried over a moving screen.
The VanBuren grader, as the machine will be known, contains a hopper in which the potatoes are poured, a cylinder screen set at the proper angle and, at the delivering end of the screen, an ending chain or conveyor which takes the potatoes to the sacker. Several features commend themselves to men who have handled large quantities of potatoes. The hopper, instead of being made solid, is constructed of iron bars which permits dirt, sand, and gravel to fall out rather than be carried through with the potatoes.
While the VanBuren sorter and grader has not been tried on any large capacity of potatoes, those who have seen it work in demonstration claim that it will revolutionize the labor of sorting and grading potatoes and predict that Mr. VanBuren has invented something which will bring him a large and certain reverence.”
The Itasca County potato legacy did not end in the 1940s, in fact there is actually at least one other individual who made a name for himself. You might have heard of the “Potato King” Marvin Schwochert of Morse township, north of Deer River. Not only did he have some revolutionary ideas, but I also have a few great stories involving Deer River High School students working in his potato fields. A column for another day! And if you can add to it, please get in touch with me. 218-244-2127 or firstname.lastname@example.org.