The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

Harlem Seed Show will celebrate its platinum jubilee this coming March 14-16


January 23, 2019

Elsie Bertelsen, of Harlem, was on the original seed show committee that planned the first Montana Seed Show in 1948. She was a junior in high school and was asked by the county extension agent to serve on the 13 member organizing group. The coming show set for March 14-16 will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the only surviving seed show in Montana.

Reporter's note: The Harlem Seed Show committee, the group that plans and stages the annual seed show, is hard at work putting the finishing touches on the upcoming three-day event. This year's show is set for Friday through Saturday, March 14-16, and will salute the seed show's 70th anniversary.

It seemed proper to recognize this ag-related happening at such a significant milestone. Ron Larson was a long-time seed judge at the Harlem show and served many years as the Manager of the Montana Seed Growers Association, an industry trade group that advocates for seed growers in the state. During an interview at the Harlem show's 65th anniversary, Larson said, "As far as I know the Montana Seed Show in Harlem is the only one still going in Montana." He noted that an attempt to replicate the show in Kalispell years ago fizzled after only a few years.

The story of the Harlem Seed Show, or the Montana Seed Show (It has had several iterations of names through its history), and its survival for seven decades is really the story of agriculture writ small. The show's success, like the larger sector of agriculture, is about dedicated people leading the event and introducing adaptations and innovations that have allowed the show to survive. While there have been many people involved over the seventy years of the show and many changes, here's a quick overview of some of the people and changes that still keep the seed show viable.

The Milk River Seed and Potato Show was begun to showcase the seeds produced by local farmers

Orville McCarver, who many locals involved with the seed show will recall as a show judge and staffer with the Montana State University Extension Service, published a short history of the Montana Seed Potato Program in 2006. McCarver spent thirty years overseeing the seed potato certification. In the history he listed 32 Montana farmers whose potatoes "passed required field inspections for the season of 1947." Four of the 32 growers were from Blaine County. James Achton, Francis Rowley, Echo Thornley, all of the Harlem area and Bert Murphy of Chinook, made up more than ten percent of the producers of certified seed potatoes in Montana at the time.

In 1948, a year before the first seed show was staged in Harlem, a committee of locals began plans to launch an event to showcase the seeds coming from Blaine County. The first Milk River Seed and Potato Show was held January 28 and 29, 1949, at the old Harlem Civic Center (in the area where the Bank of Harlem now stands). A follow up story in the "Harlem News" reported that 300 attended the first show.

During that event, recognition was given to J.F. Sharples (father of Frank Sharples of Chinook), a seed potato producer in the Zurich area. Sharples was credited with developing a strain of Bliss Triumph (a red potato) that is "...universally grown today in the Red River Valley of North Dakota." Dick Clark, a friend of mine in North Dakota, raised seed potatoes until the 1980's. Clark wrote, "It (the Bliss Triumph) was a high quality red eating potato and was popular here in the valley for some time." Clark added that over the years, "...most of the varieties that we raised then have been replaced

more than once, all varieties, reds, whites and russets." Even at the outset of the seed show local producers had established a reputation beyond Blaine County for quality seeds.

The first seed show organizing committee was made up of 13 members. Elsie Bertelsen, of Harlem and a high school junior in 1948, was asked by her 4-H leader to be a member of the committee. She couldn't recall all the members but said several seed growers, the Blaine County Superintendent of Schools, the county extension agent and a few business owners were also part of the original planning committee. Bertelsen said, "One of my duties was to type all the records and documents related to the Seed Show, all on an old manual typewriter." Bertelsen was involved actively in the show for many years but says she has backed off to "let some younger people take on leadership roles."

The Seed Show began to adapt early on

Karolee Cronk, a current member of the organizing committee, said originally there were only displays of seeds and seed potatoes, with judging for the best displays. Cronk said in 1954 the Busy XX Extension Club started serving pie and coffee at the event. A fiddlers' contest was soon added during those early years and a news story in 1958 reported 1100 attended the fiddlers' competition. That same year there were 150 seed exhibits with 700 guests registering during what had become a three day event.

Sometime during the first ten years a dinner was added, served at the grade school, on Thursday night. It was a way to bring together the people who helped stage the show and those who had participated the year before. The current planning committee has been toying with the idea of holding the Thursday night steak supper as a part of the pre-event festivities for this jubilee year.

Those early shows had lots of "interest groups" for farmers and seed producers. Montana State College (later to become MSU-Bozeman) provided many of the experts who shared the latest information about raising crops and seeds. Soon interest groups for livestock producers were added, as well as interest meetings with information for ladies, attracting yet other groups to the annual show.

On the tenth anniversary of the seed show a health component was added as part of the activities. The Blaine County Extension clubs, in conjunction with the Montana State Highway Vision Testing Department (the folks who did vision testing for drivers' licenses), provided vision testing for some 400 guests. That could have been the predecessor for the very popular health tests that are now offered both on Friday and Saturday mornings of the seed show.

Over time more competitions were added (woodworking, art, quilting) and commercial exhibitors were invited to showcase their services and wares. Additional interest groups were added covering diverse topics. Early on the MSU-Extension sent a lady to demonstrate pie baking. That eventually lead to the pie, bread and other types of baking competitions that are one of the most exciting parts of the Saturday night banquet and awards program. Typical speakers morphed from solely MSU professors and department heads to entertainers of varied stripes.

The 2019 Seed Chow Committee (L-R): Front row - Shirley Brockie, Karolee Cronk, Sandy Miller, Dale Klungland, Jack Siemens. Back row - Kellie Rasmussen, Paul Rasmussen, John Schneider, Vicki Hofeldt and Makayla Hofeldt. Not Picture - Julie Snedigar and Susan Billmayer.

Variety has been the spice of the seed show. Paul Rasmussen has served as chair of the seed show for several years. His father and great uncle also chaired the committee before him. Elsie Bertelsen, in an interview for the 65th anniversary of the seed show, said that the Rasmussen family had been instrumental in keeping the seed show operating. Paul's great aunt, Eileen, was instrumental in adding the art competition and the Rasmussen family had a keen interest in supporting the baking contests.

Paul Rasmussen said in 2014, "we have made changes to make the seed show more like some of the bigger agricultural events. We've expanded to be more like a smaller version of the Montana Agricultural and Industrial Exposition (MAGIE) in Great Falls." Like agriculture itself, agricultural expositions must adapt to survive. After 70 years the Montana (Harlem) Seed Show has changed, but its leadership is optimistic and working hard to make sure "the show goes on."


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