SHELLEY — If you’re from Shelley, you’ve probably seen Boomer, the russet Burbank potato.
He’s the high school mascot in a town of about 4,000 people.
“I imagine when they created the high school years ago, they wanted a mascot that was fitting for the town,” said Shelley Superintendent Bryan Jolley. “Most of the tax base here was comprised of potato farmers in those days, so they chose a potato.”
Shelley is located in the heart of East Idaho, an area best known for producing potatoes, which contribute between $550 million and $700 million to the state’s economy each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Runoff from the Teton Mountains in Western Wyoming, hot summer days, cool nights and rich volcanic soils make East Idaho a prime place for growing spuds — a practice that has influenced towns and schools across East Idaho for decades.
- Sugar-Salem High School, located roughly 10 miles north of Rexburg, is home to the “Diggers,” Shelley’s cross-town rival.
- Blackfoot’s potato museum, a regular school field-trip attraction, houses the Guinness Book of World Records’ largest Pringles potato crisp.
But no East Idaho school district has embraced the potato quite like Shelley. Instead of a Junior Miss or Distinguished Young Women pageant, Shelley crowns a Miss Russet, who each year inaugurates and serves as the symbolic overseer of the town’s three-day potato festival: Spud Days.
The festival’s hallmark event is an annual tug-of-war performed over a pit of cold mashed potatoes. Each September, for more than 20 years, members of Shelley’s public works crew have dug a hole eight feet wide, 16 feet long and three feet deep at the city park, mixed some 2,000 pounds of potato flakes with water inside a cement truck and filled the hole with the gooey concoction prior to the event.
Miss Russet repugnantly tastes the cloying corpus each year to ensure proper consistency. Then teams categorized by weight try to tug each other in.
About 6,000 free baked potatoes are handed out each year during the festival.
The three-day event precedes a two-week harvest vacation for students in the Shelley district — a time historically set aside for students to help harvest potatoes.
“Of course every student doesn’t help out during harvest like they used to,” Jolley said. “but I know many small farmers around here still rely a lot on our students to help out.”
Even the high school’s structural design contributes to Shelley’s tater-tinged troposphere: It looks like a massive cellar — though it wasn’t intended to, says Jolley.
“Back when the bond for a new school was introduced, the school board was actually just looking for the most economical design they could find,” he said. “Ironically, that design just so happened to look like a potato cellar.”
Some students balk at the idea of being branded a Russet, says Shelley High School senior Makenzie Richards, but she doesn’t.
“Some say it’s dumb and that they don’t like it,” she said. “I say it’s awesome because it’s unique.”
How much do you know about Idaho potatoes?
True or false:
- Potatoes are grown in all 50 states.
(True: They also grow in about 125 countries worldwide.)
- The average American eats more potatoes annually than the average person in any other country.
(False: On average, Americans eat about 124 pounds of potatoes per year, while Germans eat about twice as much.)
- The potato was the first vegetable to be grown in space.
(True: In October 1995, the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space. NASA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, developed technology aimed at feeding astronauts on long space voyages and, eventually, feeding future space colonies.)
- An eight-ounce baked or boiled potato has about 200 calories.
(False: An eight-ounce potato has about half that.)
Source for quiz: Idaho Potato Museum