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Our forgotten potato industry

Montezuma County Historical SocietyC.I. Brown Builds Potato Cellar at Cortez on property on North Broadway. The cellar is accessible to highway and market.
Montezuma County hosted a potato cellar at the edge of Cortez, and farm in the valley

When pioneers came to Southwest Colorado, they came with cattle and a few sheep. Most of the pioneers hoped to "homestead," and then find out which crops would grow best. No row crops were established until about the 1920s, and the first crop of pinto beans was shipped out around 1922. But a nearly forgotten potato industry cropped up in the 1900s, first to supply locals who wanted a product that they could easily store for winter and then as a crop that could be easily shipped. Following are two such ventures in Montezuma County.

The Cortez potato cellar

C. I. Brown Builds Potato Cellar at Cortez on property located on North Broadway. The cellar is accessible to highway and market.

At Cortez, Colorado, Chester I. Brown, prominent West Dolores certified potato seed grower, has built the largest potato storage cellar in Colorado. This cellar will store thirty percent more potatoes than any other cellar in the state.

The cellar is 48 by 216 feet, inside measurement. It has a ceiling height of standard underpass clearance. The cellar has a 14-foot driveway, with 54 bins which will hold 21,500 sacks of potatoes, 100 pounds each.

Mr. Brown uses this cellar almost exclusively for storage of his own potatoes, however permits others to use it as space permit. The cellar is located on Highways 160 and 666 (127 North Broadway). Mr. Brown finds it advantageous to have his potatoes stored at Cortez as he has access to his seed when growers are ready for his seed. Certified Potato Seed grown is Irish Cobbler, Bliss Triumph, White Rose and Katahdin. The Seed is Dry-Land Grown at 8,500 ft. Elevation. Mr. Brown’s address May 1 to Dec 1 – Stoner, Colorado and Dec. 1 to May 1- Cortez, Colorado. Mr. Brown grows potatoes in the area of Fish Creek on the Dolores River.

While potatoes do well in Dolores and Montezuma counties a few of the growers have proven the profit that may be made from growing certified seed. Pioneers in this line of endeavor are C. I. and C. A. Brown, who first grew seed successfully in the Rainbelt area. They later went to the Dolores River at an altitude of approximately 8,000 feet. In the high area the crop is free from disease and pests though these obstacles are not serious ones, even in the lower part of the territory.

Brown brothers have published this area all over the southwestern states with their pure potato seed, high altitude grown, and they have never yet been able to supply the demand for their product. In addition to these men other growers have attempted to fill the orders for all the orders that come from other points for our superior potato seed but as yet the demand exceeds the supply.

C. I. Brown has made his crop accessible to the truckers by constructing in Cortez the largest potato cellar in Colorado. Built on paved highways 160 and 666 it may be reached for loading or unloading. Brown’s cellar is scientifically built in every detail and is a model for other growers to watch and copy. (Progress Edition of Cortez Sentinel 1940-1941.)

The potato cellar was built on land where Steve Keetch Motor Company is now located. No one knows when the cellar may have been removed.

The Knight Bros.

Editor’s note: The Knight Bros. article is from Lillian Hartman’s Colorado Apple Show Edition for Montezuma County, published in Denver on Dec. 29, 1909.

Franklin and Mike Knight were born in England. From there they came in 1884 to Colorado, and settled on the famous Knight ranch in Montezuma Valley where they do general farming. They made a specialty of the potato, having increased the acreage in that staple vegetable until now they have 50 acres which this year yielded 400 tons. The chief varieties that are planted are the Early Northern, Pearl and Carmen, which they have found are the best for shipping.

When asked about his methods of planting and harvesting, Mr. Frank Knight said before planting potatoes we generally irrigate the ground, then plow after irrigation, and plant by using the Aspinwall planter. After the potatoes are well up, we hill thoroughly for three or four times with riding cultivators depending on the season’s rain as to frequency of irrigation but generally one irrigation makes a crop. It is better for them not to have too much water.

This year we had enough rain and did no irrigation and it is the best crop we have ever raised. We generally plant from the 20th of May to the 10th of June and commence harvesting early potatoes about the middle of September and the general crop about the middle of October. In this work we use Indians who make good help, except for teamwork, and we pay a wage of $1.50 and they board themselves. The squaws we pay only a dollar a day. The loose red soil is better than the gray soil for potatoes. It requires from 800 to 1000 pounds to set an acre. We plant two feet and nine inches between the rows and fifteen to the row, depending somewhat on the character of the land. If it is new ground we plant thicker, if worn, thinner.

In the fall we find markets in Silverton, Telluride, and other local towns and in the spring we ship anyplace in the world. Prices run from 75 cents to 80 cents in the fall to $1.50 in the spring. The potato crop is never a failure here.

The water will cost $20, labor and seed in the neighborhood of $25 and the profit per acre would be about $75 on an average. While digging potatoes I employ about 15 men and in setting the ground it takes about five men.

We have a home orchard of three acres from which we have had 200 boxes of all varieties of apples. Of these we will ship a surplus of about 150 boxes. We also had quantities of summer fruit.

The Knight brothers have demonstrated to the most exacting investigation what intelligence and energy will accomplish on a Montezuma Valley farm. As citizens, they enjoy a very high standing and are among the strongest stockholders of the Montezuma Valley Bank. It is the successful man who builds a country, and Knight brothers are among those who wear the laurel wreath of success in Montezuma.

Note: The Knight Bros. article is from Lillian Hartman’s Colorado Apple Show Edition for Montezuma County, published in Denver on Dec. 29, 1909.

Thank you to Jack Hamilton for his help on the location of the potato cellar. June Head, Historian of the Montezuma Valley Historical Society can be reached at 565-3880 for questions or comments.