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Local museum puts Idaho’s largest export on display, including its appearance on license plates

Rett Nelson,

Idaho license plate issued in 1949 on display at the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot | Rett Nelson,

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series highlighting the stories behind local museum artifacts.

BLACKFOOT – Tourists from around the world visit the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot every year to learn about Idaho’s No. 1 ag product.

Tish Dahmen, the museum’s executive director, has spent many years promoting the potato as one of the world’s most valuable resources. A display inside the museum shows how the potato is not just a food source, it’s also played an integral role in science and technological innovation.

The invention of television is one example. An important breakthrough came to 14-year-old Philo T. Farnsworth as he was working on his uncle’s potato farm in Rigby.

“He was unsure of how he could take a picture from one place and transmit it to another,” a museum display reads. “He looked at the plowed rows of dirt behind him … and envisioned a line of electrons. The farming lines inspired him — he could scan a picture line by line, like reading a book (and) turn it into an electrical impulse that can be transmitted.”

There’s another instance involving potatoes that’s not displayed which Dahmen brought to our attention. It happened during World War II. U.S. Navy sailors aboard the USS O’Bannon narrowly escaped conflict with a Japanese destroyer by pelting it with potatoes.

Around 2:30 a.m. on April 5, 1943, the O’Bannon made radar contact with the Japanese submarine. A visiting admiral onboard apparently ordered the crew to ram it until the captain woke up and told them to stop.

The Japanese sailors were awake by that time and prepared to fire. The American sailors needed something to distract them until they could get away.

“As they reached into the deck lockers looking for small arms, they found only potatoes that were to be peeled for the next meal,” an article from Medium reports. “The O’Bannon’s sailors armed with spuds started throwing them at the Japanese sailors who, in a panic, mistook them for hand-grenades.”

The American ship started firing as the Japanese ship submerged, which was reported sunk around 3:19 a.m.

Though the potatoes in this incident were from Maine, another potato-growing state, Dahmen has a collection of post cards depicting the Idaho Russet as a Navy hero.

One of the postcards from Dahmen’s collection | Rett Nelson,

An often unnoticed item in the potato museum is an early Idaho license plate with the phrase “World famous potatoes” printed on it. Idaho was the first state to introduce a stylized license plate, according to Reddit. References to the Gem State’s famous potatoes are still printed on license plates today, but the story of how it got there is a contentious one.

Idaho’s first advertising plate in 1928 featured an elongated potato. | Courtesy Rick Just

A license plate becomes an advertisement for Idaho’s ‘famous potatoes’

It all began in 1928 with an image of a big potato. In a 2021 blog post, Blackfoot native Rick Just explains the image covered nearly the entire license plate many years before the now famous slogan showed up and most people hated it.

RELATED | Blackfoot native tells story of man behind these advertisements in new book

Many people didn’t like the idea of being a rolling advertisement for potatoes. Another reason they hated it, which they learned after the fact, is that tourists loved to steal them.

Over the next year, the Secretary of State’s office was flooded with complaints and they got rid of the potato-themed plate.

In 1947, a legislator from Bonneville County, whose name is not specified, brought it back. The phrase “World Famous Potatoes” was introduced the following year.

Prisoners at the Idaho State Penitentiary were tasked with making the plates and placing a full-color baked potato decal in the middle. The prison warden was among those who hated the design. As a prank, he had the prisoners put a decal of a “curveful woman” in the center instead.

They even held a press conference to introduce the plates.

“My gosh, governor, we made a mistake and stamped out 20,000 plates with the design of this woman on it instead of the Idaho potato!” the warden said, according to Just.

The 1948 plate with a 1949 tag. | Courtesy Rick Just

The potato-themed plate was again short-lived, much to the relief of Helen Miller, a Democratic representative from Glenns Ferry. Many felt the dollop of butter on top of the potato “made it look like a large goose dropping from a car length back.” Miller expressed gratitude that the “potato mutilation” would not be a “permanent nuisance.”

The image never returned, but the slogan “World Famous Potatoes” was revived in 1953, only to be quickly dismissed and revived again in 1956. The word “world” was dropped in 1957 and “Famous potatoes” has been a fixture ever since.

A collection of Idaho license plates over the years. | Courtesy Idaho Press via Boisedev


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