Thousands of locals and visitors lined Main Street in Shelley, Idaho early Saturday morning to watch the Spud Day parade. Families and children waited eagerly for floats that would soon drive through town, carrying something special that brought these people together.
The stereotype of this town may be potatoes, but underneath it all, annual celebrations like Spud Day are all about family, tradition and bringing people together.
Families who grew up in Shelley and surrounding small towns have come to accept and expect the contributions of Spud Day to the community and to the annual Fall potato harvest.
BYU junior Danielle Hanson, who spent her entire upbringing in Shelley, remembers always looking forward to the September celebration.
“Spud Day happens every year, and it never seemed out of the ordinary,” Hanson said. “Basically the whole town goes, and it’s weird if you don’t. Spud Day really brings everyone together.”
An Idaho community devoting a Saturday entirely to the celebration of potatoes may sound strange to outsiders, but Spud Day represents a larger ideal: locals being united by community values and a true sense of belonging.
According to Mayor Eric “Swede” Christensen, around 20,000 people attend Spud Day annually, despite Shelley only having a population of 4,409. Participants aging from newborn babies to great-grandparents can be seen enjoying free baked potatoes, local entertainment, and time with their families.
“As I’ve walked through the park, I’ve seen five generations here today—possibly six if I looked around harder,” Christensen said.
This past weekend marked the 84th Annual Spud Day festival. Although the mechanics of harvesting may have changed over the years, the community participation has not.
Winder’s Funnel Cakes, a local business, has been selling their creations made from family recipes at Spud Day since 1985.
“This is a real good hometown event,” Tyler Winder, a member of the family business, said. “There’s really no other way I can put it.”
Spud Days of the past included carnival rides for little kids, horse-pulling competitions, “Best in Show” potato contests, LDS wards serving as local vendors, and middle and high school football games in the afternoon. Now, Spud Day occurs annually during Shelley High School’s Homecoming week, complete with a week’s-worth of activities leading up to the Saturday celebrations.
Saturday morning began with a parade suited for audiences of all ages, where local businesses and organizations ride homemade floats down Main Street and toss out candy, coupons and fliers to onlookers. Included in the crowds are large groups of college students, bearing shirts from BYU, BYU-I, USU, and LDSBC—showcasing many of those who move away yet come back to their hometown to celebrate.
BYU student Klint Metcalf, who recently returned from serving a mission in Germany, could be seen on the sidewalks greeting old friends and ward members after the parade had ended. Metcalf, who moved to Shelley his junior year of high school, described the welcoming feel of the town he now calls home.
“It’s really exciting getting to be a part of the community and see people come back every year,” he said.
The Spud Day festivities near their end each year with the highly-anticipated Spud Tug: classic tug-o-war with an Idaho twist. Opposing teams are placed on either side of a pit filled with instant mashed potatoes, and members of the losing side are thrown, often head first, into a starchy mess.
Teams are formed by local friends, companies and siblings, often with the same team members returning year after year. The Spud Tug has become, in a sense, a symbol of community and loyalty, with even the local elders tugging away each year in their suits and ties.
Shelley is a community reliant on their potato crop, but what they really harvest is a true sense of togetherness. Those not from rural Idaho who visit Shelley and neighboring towns may be surprised at what they find there: welcoming, love, acceptance and, of course, some really great potatoes.
“I hope people come away with the tradition we feel for potatoes, agriculture, and the good citizens of our area of Southeast Idaho,” Christensen said.