Someone suggested turning a small P.E.I. town’s local museum into a full-fledged international tourist attraction. The result is the Canadian Potato Museum.
If there’s a place that’s more appropriate for the Canadian Potato Museum, you can make the argument that you couldn’t do better than the town of O’Leary in Prince Edward Island.
P.E.I., of course, produces a large portion of Canada’s potatoes. O’Leary, a town with obvious Irish origins, is host to the annual Potato Blossom Festival in July and is situated in the heart of farm country, surrounded by the beautiful red rolling hills of the Island, about a 90-minute drive west of Charlottetown.
When you’re there, there’s no doubt you’re in potato country. When I set out to visit the museum in mid-July, the shoulders of the No. 2 Highway to O’Leary sported many hand-written signs offering new potatoes, a crop that, by some accounts, came up two weeks late this year. Just before the turn-off into town, there was a bright red “self-serve” box of new potatoes on a private driveway, charging $5.50 for three pounds. Help yourself.
But while the western end of Prince County (the westernmost of P.E.I.’s three counties) may be the ideal location for a potato museum, it wasn’t exactly planned, as museum manager Donna Rowley explained to me.
“The original museum was a community museum,” she said. “Dr. George Dewar (the founder) had a passion for preservation. One consultant through the Community Museums Association [of Prince Edward Island] made the suggestion that we change the focus of the museum.”
The name changes of the place over the years show the evolution of the facility. At one time, it was the O’Leary Potato Museum, then the P.E.I. Potato Museum. Now, it’s the Canadian Potato Museum. There also happens to be a museum called Potato World in Florenceville-Bristol, N.B., but it’s a newer facility. There are also a couple of potato-themed museums in the United States and several in Europe.
The museum itself is a handsome building, just off the main strip of O’Leary, obvious for the gigantic, four-metre-tall fiberglass potato outside. Rowley says it’s one of the most photographed objects in this corner of the Island.
Though several years old, the museum looks brand new, thanks to a recent renovation. Board member and volunteer Stanley MacDonald, who was dealing with admissions that day, offered some potato-based fudge at the entrance and mentioned it’s a 14,000-square-foot facility. There are also large museum grounds, with older preserved buildings from the community, revealing the facility’s initial O’Leary-focused origins.
The museum, of course, contains the ingredients common to an agricultural museum, including an area displaying older machinery (including some pieces from the Allan Potato Handling Equipment company, an Island legend), an industry-specific hall of fame, displays on the history of the potato, a lineup of potato diseases (humorously displayed in a series of potato coffins) and an introductory film.
Visitors will learn more than a few intriguing facts, like how the International Potato Center in Peru was at one time threatened by Shining Path guerillas, and that the French once considered the potato a “dangerous aphrodisiac,” the ingestion of which may lead to “large-headed children,” among other things. There’s also a beautiful cafeteria, and a small section devoted to O’Leary itself.
The practice involving mussel mud also makes an interesting appearance at the museum. P.E.I. potato farmers of the early 20th century recognized the need for a better fertilizer on their fields, and turned to what was surrounding them — mud from where the local riverbeds met the ocean. It turned out the stuff was rich with lime from oyster shells, so it became a regular Island event to hook the horses up to a type of digger that would gather the rich mud (one is on display). The eventual availability of cheap mainland lime put an end to the practice, except for one brief revival in the 1980s.
Though not directly associated with the museum, Prince Edward Island Potato Board Chairman Gary Linkletter strongly believes in the value of the place. “I think the potato has been so important to P.E.I. over the years,” said Linkletter. “The museum’s a great place for Islanders to go to take a look at their roots, it’s great for people to see what the industry of their immediate ancestors was. Also, it’s extremely well done. Before the renovations it was a good museum. Now, it’s a great museum.”
Linkletter specifically mentioned one of the displays — the first two-row potato harvester built by Donnie Allan of the aforementioned Allan Potato Handling Equipment that he calls “a true piece of Island heritage.”
The P.E.I. Potato Board and the museum work together to put on the annual Toe Taps & Taters event, part of the P.E.I. Fall Flavours Festival, where a celebrity chef is brought in to cook up a potato-themed dinner to musical accompaniment. They also collaborate on other projects, like the recently unveiled series of online videos about the history of the potato on Prince Edward Island that’s also showing at the museum.
The museum is a seasonal one, open from mid-May to mid-October. Though off the beaten path, and a significant drive away from anything related to Anne of Green Gables, in those six months, the Canadian Potato Museum receives about 7,000 visitors, down slightly from a peak of 11,000 when the Confederation Bridge first opened in 1997. And Rowley also mentions that it’s tricky to guide people to the site. “Provincial signage allows us one sign,” she said, mentioning there are laws in place so as not to clutter the beautiful Island landscape with too many billboards for tourist attractions.
Education is Key
When asked whether the museum is meant to appeal to people in the industry or outside of it, museum manager Rowley said, “A little bit of both; education is key. We offer tours free to schools…. the focus is on the history [of the potato] because there’s never been a museum with that focus.”
Aside from school tours, the museum plays host to many interested parties from far away, including seniors, New Englanders, off-season Australian and New Zealander farmers, and various visiting Europeans. “We do get a lot of farmers here,” said Rowley. “It’s amazing how many farm-related folks come here.”
But the museum isn’t immune to the trendy, either. “There are a lot of foodies that come through, too,” said Rowley. The foodies may want to hit the potato-themed cafeteria, which offers potato fudge (“We typically run out of it every day and have to make a new batch,” Rowley said), potato ice cream, chowder, P.E.I. potato soup, chili cheese fries, poutine and loaded potato skins. “There are no hamburgers or hot dogs,” said Rowley.
Rowley also mentions a couple on their honeymoon did a farm tour. Prince Edward Island’s tourism sector is highly developed, and there is one particular in-depth tourism program called Authentic P.E.I. Experiences, of which the Spuds, Fudge and Tales Farm Tour is one option. It includes a half-day of activities that include visits to a potato farm and the Canadian Potato Museum complete with a cooking lesson (that includes the potato fudge recipe).
As far as goals for the museum, Rowley said, “Being a non-profit, you always want to be sustainable, to preserve what we have, and improve what we have.”