Easily recognized as potato country, 152-year-old Idaho (pop. 1.6 million) has emerged as one of the country’s most productive agricultural states. But that’s hardly the only reason to take a closer look. Check out 25 facts that prove there’s more to the area than just spuds.
1. It used to be a rectangle. When Idaho was recognized as a territory by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, it included Montana and most of Wyoming, creating a nicely geometric shape. But poor winter traveling conditions made it hard for residents to get around, and the size of the land made it difficult for government authorities to organize. When Wyoming broke off in 1868, the territory was left with its slightly jagged imprint on the map.
2. Boise was named the capital owing to similar travel difficulties. After lawmakers found that arriving in distant Lewiston was proving stressful, they voted to move the capital to Boise in 1864.
3. Latah County, created in 1888, is the only county in the U.S. ever created by an act of Congress. The move was made to pacify citizens in Northern Idaho who had petitioned to annex themselves to Washington the year before.
4. The state held a contest in 1891 to find an official seal. The winner, Boise City’s Emma Edwards, became the first woman to design an emblem for any state. (She also won $100.) It was later redesigned in 1957 (above) to better reflect their agricultural, mining, and forestry commerce.
5. The archetype of the pacifistic farmer wasn’t always accurate here: tensions between sheep herders and cattle ranchers over water and land resources for their animals resulted in two sheep farmers being murdered in 1896. Professional enforcer “Diamondfield” Jack Davis was tried and convicted for the killings, but later pardoned when two others confessed.
6. That same year, the Montpelier Bank became infamous for being knocked over by legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy. He stole over $7000, allegedly to pay the lawyer for a friend of his on trial for murder. Authorities searched for Cassidy for over a week, but he had made his escape.
7. The Coeur D’Alene mining controversy remains one of the most notorious chapters in the state’s history. In July 1892, union miners rallied against wage reductions and longer shifts by rioting at the mine, where scab workers had been assembled. After the violence ended in the death of several men, the National Guard was brought in to restore order.
8. Idaho took a proactive approach to forest fire prevention. By stationing men and women on tree chairs (and later steel towers) 15 feet to 54 feet in the air, workers could spot smoke from an encroaching fire and alert park workers before it could spread. (Fire wasn’t the only hazard: One lookout was struck and killed by lightning while on duty.)
9. It’s the home of the first ski lift. Union Pacific Railroad felt that the slopes of Sun Valley in Idaho would be able to attract skiers for their snow fix. UPR engineer James Curran came up with the chair lift concept in 1936, which he modeled on the banana hooks that would carry fruit on to boats.
10. Walt Disney got married there in 1925. His wife-to-be, Lillian Bounds, was born in Lewiston and had come to California to visit her sister; after getting a job as an inker at Disney Productions, she met Walt and the two grew close. They were wed at a family house in Lewiston; Bounds is credited with naming her husband’s signature mouse “Mickey.”
11. No one has done more for potatoes than J.R. Simplot, who stumbled upon the idea for dehydrating them in 1941 by using a prune drying machine. The Dubuque-born farmer developed flash-frozen and cut potatoes for fries that would become a staple of freezers and fast-service restaurants everywhere. His license plate read “Mr. Spud.”
12. It introduced the world to atomic power. Idaho’s National Reactor Testing Station became the first site of nuclear fission being converted into electricity in 1951. In 1955, the Atomic Energy Commission was able to power the town of Arco for an entire hour with nuclear energy.
13. It was hiding an extinct species of horse. Rancher Elmer Cook stumbled upon the remains in 1928 and soon the Smithsonian Institution was digging up more than three tons of specimens—including a complete skeleton—of the “Hagerman horse” in 1929. It’s the earliest known fossil of the horse, though it actually might have more in common with zebras.
14. Evel Knievel met his match there. In 1974, the famed daredevil attempted to “jump” the 1600-foot width of Snake River Canyon in a custom-built “Skycycle.” The contraption sprung its parachute early, leaving Knievel in a heap at the bottom. Daredevils are still plotting ways to cross the Canyon, though no one has been successful yet.
15. Snake River was also a culprit in one of the state’s biggest disasters. The Teton Dam gave way in 1976, submerging thousands of homes and drowning countless cattle. The waters were stopped by the American Falls reservoir.
16. Fate didn’t give them much of a break: four years later, the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington showered northern Idaho with a layer of volcanic ash.
17. Usually, they have their lava under control. The Craters of the Moon is an area near Snake River full of post-volcanic fissures, fields, and tubes. At the heart of the 75-square-mile landmark is the Great Rift, a 52-mile-long crack in the Earth’s crust. It was declared a National Monument by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924 and later used by NASA as terrestrial training ground for the Apollo 14 astronauts.
18. All that ash might actually be why Idaho potatoes are world-renowned. According to the Idaho Potato Museum, volcanic debris makes for light, mineral-rich soil that’s ideal for spud production.
19. Potatoes are really kind of small potatoes when it comes to Idaho’s major export. The arguably bigger contribution is television, which was invented by Philo T. Farnsworth for his Rigby high school chemistry class in 1922. The plan for image-producing electrons Farnsworth came up with would later become the crucial piece in his 1927 television prototype.
20. They can lay claim to one of the world’s greatest athletes. Olympic decathlon gold medalist Dan O’Brien went to the University of Idaho and trained in the state for the 1992 Games, for which he failed to qualify due to failing on the pole vault. He returned in 1996 and conquered the competition.
21. Idaho’s Capitol Building is about as green as it gets: the structure is heated using geothermal water pumped from hot springs more than 3000 feet below the surface. Over 200 homes near Boise are also able to benefit from the system to keep warm, with the water reaching temperatures of 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
22. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs spent a chunk of his pre-Tarzan life toiling in Idaho, working as a cattle ranch hand near Pocatello before opening a stationery store and buying a houseboat. He once ran into fellow Idahoan Ernest Hemingway in Honolulu; despite his wife’s prodding, he was too shy to go say hello.
23. Adam West lives in Ketchum part of the year. If you look up his name in the local phone book, you’re advised to instead search for “Wayne, Bruce.”
24. They have their own Loch Ness-esque mystery. The Bear Lake Monster at the Utah/Idaho border was first spotted in 1868 and described by witnesses as being reptilian or bear-like (or both) in appearance. One possible explanation: swimming elk.
25. You can thank Idaho for Furby. The mechanical toy fad was co-invented by Boise resident Caleb Chung in 1997, who later sold it to Tiger Electronics. Chung maintained a presence in his Idaho lab, where he also developed Pleo, a robotic dinosaur pet launched in 2006.