Before skiing, potato was king |

Before skiing, potato was king

Kathy Heicher
Vail, CO Colorado
Eagle County Historical SocietyFrank Schoonover and young Joe Dice with a potato digger, on the Shryack Place (later called the Mosher Place) on lower Brush Creek in the 1930s.

EAGLE ” These days, the Eagle Valley’s potato crop is limited to backyard garden plots.

But in decades past, when agriculture rather than real estate or tourism drove the local economy, spuds were one of the big cash crops.

The Eagle Valley in general, and particularly the Brush Creek and Gypsum Creek valleys, had the right combination of cool temperatures and sandy soil that made for perfect growing conditions for potatoes.

The valley was particularly known for its high-quality russet potatoes, featuring brown skin and firm white flesh. Russets, then and now, are valued for baking, frying and potato chips.

In the early half of the last century, the tubers dominated the economy, news, and lifestyles of the valley. Week after week, newspaper headlines shouted news of the local potato crops.

Valley ranchers formed potato grower’s associations, to maximize marketing and sales. They brought in experts to offer advise on raising quality seed potatoes, or combating potato diseases.

Always, there was the local pride in the crop.

Idaho potatoes? Pish.

Five generations of the Slaughter family have ranched in the Gypsum Creek Valley, and like the Gerard family, the Erickson family, and other local ranchers, they grew potatoes.

“They always said they raised the best potatoes in the valley ” it was that red, sandy soil,” recalls Gene Slaughter, 60, a lifelong resident of the valley.

“The Eagle River District has the well-earned reputation, stamped with the approval of government experts, of raising the very finest potatoes in the United States.”

Eagle Valley Enterprise

Nov. 26, 1920

The Doll family also ranched the Gypsum Creek Valley for generations. Local historian Frank Doll, of Avon, remembers many a potato harvest.

“We had lots of potatoes, big fields of them,” he said.

Typically, the harvest came on in mid-to- late fall, as soon as the frost wilted the vines.

Doll remembers that potato harvest involved a crew of at least eight people to handle the digging, picking, sorting, and shipping of the spuds. Doll’s father often recruited harvest crews out of Red Cliff; or would tap into the labor supply of families on the creek who had lots of strapping boys.

That was true even into the 1960s, Slaughter said.

“Potato harvest gave tons of kids in the valley work. On weekends, if we weren’t playing ball, we were sorting potatoes,” he said.

Prior to World War II, the work was done with strong teams of horses, which pulled the potato digger, a unique piece of machinery with angled wings that dug deep into the loam to loosen the soil, and bring the spuds up to the surface.

The digger was followed by the potato pickers, who carried steel baskets that held about 30 pounds of potatoes. They would cast the vines out the way, and pick up the potatoes.

The rancher didn’t want the potato digger to get too far ahead of the pickers. Potatoes left on the ground overnight could freeze, which ruined them.

Potato cellars were important for storing the spuds that weren’t immediately shipped out. There’s still plenty of those old cellars, dug into sidehills, lingering in the valley today.

Once sorted, the big gunny-sacks were filled with 100 pounds of potatoes. The local ranchers each had their own gunny sacks, with printed logos. Slaughter still has a bunch of “Slaughter Ranch” gunny sacks. The colorful bags tout the “Colorado Utility Gypsum Valley” brand.

“If you were really proud of your potatoes, which all of the people south of Daggett Lane (on Gypsum Creek) were, they were called ‘Red Soil Russets,'” Doll said.

Those potatoes brought a premium price.

In the early days, the sacks of potatoes were loaded onto train cars in either Eagle or Gypsum, then hauled to far-away markets.

Although Doll and Slaughter spoke of different decades when recalling valley’s potato crops, they agree on one thing: Making a living by growing potatoes was hard work.

“You’d work in the potato cellar all day, sorting the potatoes. Then you would shovel them back on the machine that rolled them into the bags. Then you go down to the house for lunch … and the ladies would always have a huge bowl of mashed potatoes. By that time, you didn’t want anything to do with potatoes … but everybody was polite enough to eat them,” he said.

Evelyn Gallegos, who grew up in Minturn, also remembers working the potato harvest as a kid.

“The first two or three nights, when you went to bed to get some rest, you would dream potato fields all night long,” she said.

Although ranchers in the Gypsum Creek Valley continued growing potatoes into the 1960s, the potato economy in the valley stated dying after World War II, Doll said.

There were several reasons. Local farmers had problems recruiting harvesting crews. Other areas, such as Colorado’s San Louis Valley, Idaho and New England, could produce more potatoes for less money.

By the 1960s, the small-scale farmers got squeezed out of the market. They couldn’t afford the equipment and the personnel.

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