PEI Potato Museum tells the story of the Island's most important product
by Treva McNally
In 1985, a museum consultant from Ottawa surveyed all the museums on PEI. When he saw the small potato exhibit in the O'Leary Community Museum, he suggested more focus be placed on potatoes because the industry so dominated the area. Dr. George Dewar, a long time resident and supporter of West Prince, became a driving force to create the Prince Edward Island Potato Museum which opened in 1993.
When you walk up the sidewalk to enter the 7000 square foot air conditioned complex, the first thing you'll notice (other than the giant potato outside the door) is that the sidewalk is lined with potato plants instead of flowers. Inside you'll find a Potato Interpretive Centre, the O'Leary Community Museum, the Potato Hall of Fame, the Amazing Potato Exhibit, a Potato Restaurant, a Potato Gift Shop, and a large collection of farm implements and machinery.
At the information desk, there were baskets of potato chips to sample—one flavoured with maple and the other with lobster, and they were surprisingly good. Then we were directed to the interpretive section which tells how potatoes came to P.E.I. from Peru, how the potato famine in Ireland resulted in 1 million people dying of starvation when late blight destroyed the potato crop in 1845, and how Islander Gerrit Loo developed pest and blight resistant Island Sunshine potatoes. Maritime music is playing in the background and one wall features a beautiful quilted scene of PEI fields, all combining to create a very pleasant atmosphere.
The Community Museum, ironically, is now housed in the Potato Museum. It features domestic, shipbuilding, fishing and military artifacts. The medical area is particularly fascinating because it features a respirator called an iron lung. Back in the1950s, many people stricken with polio were dependent on it for breathing and it certainly attracts attention from modern museum goers, reminding us how medicine has advanced in the last fifty years.
In 1999, the National Agricultural Museum in Ottawa offered the museum its Amazing Potato Exhibit so the complex was enlarged to accommodate it. This large professional display features interactive terminals and a video game called "Potato Beetle Blast." The renovation also created space for a potato restaurant which featured absolutely delicious Potato Maple Tarts the day I visited it.
It is surprising to find such an impressive facility in such a small community and the people of O'Leary have much to be proud of. The museum has a great web site at www.peipotatomuseum.com so you can take a tour before you visit. The museum is open until October 15 from 9 am5 pm Monday through Saturday and on Sunday from 1 pm to 5 pm. Admission is $5 per person or $12 per family.