Archive for Thursday, March 20, 2008

Crop was no small potatoes

March 20, 2008

In the coming weeks up and down the Kaw River Valley, farmers will be planting soybeans, corn and milo for fall harvest.

Row crops are now supreme in the valley, but for much of the early half of the last century farmers would have been busy putting in a different crop. As the photograph on Page 3A of the March 13 issue of The De Soto Explorer indicates, potatoes were once the principle crop along the river.

The photograph shows two men preparing for spring planting. The two men are brother Bill and Clarence Tripkos (not Bill and Raymond Tripkos as stated in last week's paper).

I don't know when growing Irish potatoes became such an important crop in the Kansas River Valley. But it is not an exaggeration to say the valley became world famous for producing the crop. A 1898 story in The New York Times said: "6,400 acres of Irish potatoes were planted by Wyandotte County farmers, producing 3 million bushel. Kaw Valley potatoes find markets in all parts of the country from Colorado to New York and from Canada to the Gulf. Wilder Station in Johnson County shipped out 320 Santa Fe railcars of potatoes."

In one of the peak production years there were more than 23,000 acres planted. In that era before mechanical potato pickers, migrant workers and many local residents earned a meager income hand picking Kaw Valley potatoes.

The crop was important enough that the railroads built siding or spur lines on each side of the river where packing sheds were constructed for growers to sort and sack the potatoes for shipment. The last packing plant I can recall was located in the West Bottoms not far for the new De Soto Riverfest Park. Special burlap potato sacks were stamped with a picture of a black crow and the words "Kaw Valley Potato Growers."

One of the most important Kaw Valley potato growers was Junius Groves of Edwardsville. He was born a slave in Kentucky and walked to Kansas City in 1879. At one time, he grew more potatoes on his 500 acres of Wyandotte County bottomland than any other producer in the world. Know as "The Potato King," the Union Pacific Railroad built a private line to his farm.

The Irish potato's reign in the Kaw Valley ended in the mid-1940s when a blight infected the plants. The potatoes planted in the valley were all vegetative clones grown from cuttings of the parent stock and therefore had little genetic resistance to the disease.

Although small compared to the acreage devoted to the potatoes in their heyday, the Morse family's Riverside Farms of De Soto continued to grew the crop until 1980. It was an impressive site to see the dozens of trailer trucks lined up to haul potatoes to the packing shed where the Engineered Air plant now stands. I believe most of those potatoes were made into potato chips.

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