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Myths About State Thrive, Even Among Idahoans It’s Time To Put The Potato In Its Place, And Sort Through Some Other Widely Held But Bum Assumptions

Steve Crump The Times-News

Idaho is a land of mythical qualities. Just ask the Shoshonis.

Aboriginal Idahoans told the story of how Coyote dammed up the Snake River at Idaho Falls, American Falls and Shoshone Falls to capture salmon to feed the state’s original residents.

It’s a fitting enough metaphor for what came later. As the last part of the lower 48 states to be explored by Americans of European descent, Idaho retains some mystery.

One national marketing survey 20 years ago showed that Americans said they knew less about Idaho than any other state. It’s still very much a place off the beaten path, dominated by mountains that impede the normal course of human activity. Idaho is still the only lower 48 state without a redundant highway link between its major population centers.

Oddly enough, Idaho’s mystery persists even among Idahoans, one-fifth of whom weren’t living here a generation ago.

Here are Idaho’s Top 10 myths:

1. In Idaho, the potato is king.

No, but crown prince, maybe. Potatoes and potato-processing account for about one-third of Idaho’s agriculture economy, according to Jim Nelson of the University of Idaho College of Agriculture. And the ag economy as a whole, including food processing, makes up 24 percent of the value of the state’s gross domestic product. Livestock is as big a sector of Idaho’s agricultural economy as spuds, Nelson said.

2. Most Idahoans are Mormons.

Most aren’t, although estimates of what percentage of Idahoans describe themselves as Mormon vary between 25 and 40 percent, depending on who’s doing the estimating. There’s a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints majority in only 16 of Idaho’s 44 counties (Cassia, Power, Oneida, Caribou, Franklin, Bear Lake, Bingham, Butte, Bonneville, Jefferson, Madison, Teton, Fremont, Clark, Lemhi and Custer). Mormons are by far the state’s largest single denomination, however, by about a 1-to-1 ratio over Catholics, the state’s second-largest religion.

3. Idaho is being overwhelmed by expatriate Californians.

Not exactly. The only official means of tracking the influx of out-of-staters from any source is the number of driver’s licenses turned in for Idaho licenses, and even at the bottom of the last California recession, 1993, only 1,072 ex-Golden Staters became Idahoans in Twin Falls, Jerome, Gooding and Blaine counties. Those four counties grew by about 3,500 people that year, based on Census Bureau estimates.

4. Idahoans wouldn’t elect a Democrat on a bet.

Actually, two of the three longest-serving governors in the state’s history, Cecil Andrus and John Evans, were Democrats, as was Idaho’s second longest-serving U.S. senator, Frank Church.

5. Idaho is overwhelmingly rural, and most Idahoans make their living, directly or indirectly, off the land.

In 1990, 62 percent of the state’s population was classified by the Census Bureau as urban, and nine out of 10 Idahoans lived within a one-hour drive of the six major population centers (Boise-Nampa-Caldwell, Twin Falls, Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Lewiston-Moscow, Coeur d’Alene). Agriculture accounts for about 12 percent of Idaho’s jobs, according to Nelson; food processing hires another 10 percent. In the Magic Valley, ag and food processing collectively make up 46 percent of the gross regional income and 52 percent of the jobs.

6. Idahoans hate government.

Not too much. Twenty percent of the state’s gross domestic product (and 22 percent of its jobs) comes from government (largely because 63.7 percent of Idaho is owned by the feds). Government is the second-largest sector of the state’s gross domestic product, after agriculture and food processing.

7. Idahoans talk funny.

Thanks to the homogenizing effects of television on the English language, it’s pretty hard to distinguish Idaspeak from the dialect spoken by Californians or Montanans. But Idaho does have its distinctive accents. Many southern Idahoans talk like they’re from Missouri, and that’s where a crucial percentage of the Mormon immigrants who settled on the eastern Idaho highlands came from. The Snake River Plain was also settled by a significant number of Mormon and non-Mormon Nebraskans and Iowans, so Midwestern speech patterns are common. The state’s most distinctive dialect pattern is the “Mormon R,” a tendency for some eastern Idahoans to change “or” to “ar” as in “arrange,” “farmal” or “shart.” If you’re wondering where that came from, rent the video of a 1995 Showtime film biography of Harry Truman, starring actor Gary Sinese. In Sinese’s dead-on characterization, the Missouri-born president sounds if he could be from Fart Hall.

8. The surveyors who demarcated the Idaho-Montana border were drunk and took a wrong turn at Lost Trail Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains.

Drunk or sober, the surveyors didn’t show up until 1899. Blame Congress for Idaho’s eastern frontier, which was established 36 years earlier. “This often-repeated myth implies that survey errors were responsible for Idaho’s odd-shaped boundary, when in fact it was a product of the cavalier manner in which politicians often treated territorial matters,” said University of Idaho historian Carlos Schwantes.

9. “Idaho” comes from the Shoshoni phrase for “Behold the sun coming over the mountain.”

Only in the state Department of Commerce’s dreams. “One of the steamboats that transported goldseekers up the Columbia River was named the Idaho,” said Schwantes. “Its owner apparently got the name from a Colorado mining man who said that it meant ‘Gem of the Mountains.’ Indeed, Colorado was almost named Idaho, and it was a Coloradan who coined the word Idaho, claiming that it was of Indian derivation. Until research in the late 1950s rediscovered the truth that Idaho was an invented word, several generations of Idahoans were taught that it came from the Indian words ‘E Dah Hoe.”’ But the legend dies hard. There’s even an elementary school in Pocatello named Edahow.

10. Jackalopes - hybrids of jackrabbits and antelopes whose images decorate picture postcards throughout the state - are a consequence of secret radiation releases at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and frequently waylay incautious tourists who venture into the Arco Desert.

Only if the tourists are from California.

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