Shelley, Idaho: Spud City

The town is named for John Shelley, who scouted the area in 1885 seeking a place to homestead.

Larry HIller Oct 11, 2016

To be honest, Shelley does not look her best in late winter and early spring. The town huddles unsheltered on a high, rolling plain, and winter here is unkind. Shelley is best viewed in summer, when the broad fields around town are green with potato vines and growing grain. Or in autumn sunlight, when the cottonwoods that line the nearby Snake River glow incandescent yellow across the dark water.

The town is named for John Shelley, who scouted the area in 1885 seeking a place to homestead. He found it here on the Snake’s fertile floodplain, just 10 miles south of Idaho Falls. It was a good choice. The soil is rich in volcanic ash — good for growing things, especially famous potatoes.

Eyes on Potatoes

Spuds are a mainstay of the local economy. Just north of town is GPOD — General Potato and Onion Distributors, but they “don’t do onions any more.” The company packs and ships fresh potatoes across the country and internationally. Another major presence in town is the Basic American Foods plant, which produces a wide variety of processed potato products marketed under names like Hungry Jack®.

Naturally potatoes also figure big in local culture. The high school here may be the only one in the nation to take its nickname from a potato — “the Russets.” But ask the locals what really sets Shelley apart and everyone’s first answer is Spud Days. The event is unique enough that it’s been featured on TV in the United States and even overseas.

Mash Pit

During four days in September, the town’s population of 4,000 swells with up to 6,000 visitors. Families and school classes often choose Spud Days to hold reunions in order to dovetail their get-together with the pageants, musicals and other festivities. The grand finale always takes place on the third Saturday of the month with races, a parade, free baked potatoes, a demolition derby — and the Spud Tug.

Picture a pit filled with a truckload of reconstituted potatoes. Miss Russet, who has presided over events since her coronation the Wednesday prior, ceremoniously tastes the spuds, pronounces them satisfactory, and the starchy carnage begins. Tug-o-war teams strain at thick ropes to pull each other into the goop. Sorry, there’s no gravy.

Spud Days generally marks the beginning of the potato harvest. In a long-running tradition, schools let out for two weeks so students can help with the harvest. Agriculture makes for a strong local work ethic. As school superintendent Dr. Bryan Jolley says, “Kids are expected to work hard and do well in whatever they take on.” It’s probably one of the reasons Shelley High School has won more than its share of state academic championships. It also helps that there is enthusiastic support for the schools from parents and businesses.

“There’s a very strong community feeling. It’s a great place to raise kids,” Jolley says. Eric Christensen, now in his third term as mayor, says simply: “Shelley is a great down-home community of good, hard-working people.”

Pulling Together

Service clubs and fraternal organizations add to that sense of community. The Kiwanis Club spearheads Spud Days every year. During Christmas, the broad-based Goodfellow Drive distributes warm clothing and boxes of food to struggling families. The recession has not left Shelley untouched.

But if Shelley’s location is open to the weather, it does provide something of a buffer against the worst of the recession. Idaho Falls, Blackfoot, Pocatello and the Idaho National Laboratory are all within commuting distance, providing far more employment opportunities than the small town alone could.

Even during the recession, some of the older local businesses have continued to thrive, among them Cox Honey Farms and Mick’s Home Cooking. Cox ships 600,000 pounds of honey annually around the country. And Mick’s? Ask anybody in Shelley for a good place to eat and they’ll send you here. Burger and sausage meat is ground fresh locally. Chef and co-owner Kregg Mickelsen bakes all the buns and famous pies himself, and the fries are hand-peeled and cut fresh daily.

Maybe Mick’s is symbolic of the whole town — nothing special to look at, but get a taste of what it’s all about and you can’t help but like it.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of Community magazine.

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