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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 216

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This is the grave of J.R. Simplot.

Born in 1909 in Dubuque, Iowa, the next year his family migrated west to Idaho, to homestead a farm in the Magic Valley, which frankly isn’t all that magical. He hated his father and left home in 1923. He got a job on a nearby farm and began to tinker and innovate, creating a new method for feeding hogs. But he was ambitious and intended to work for no one. He started investing in the food processing business in 1929. As irrigation made southern Idaho the national center for potatoes, Simplot started a company to ship those spuds around the nation. By World War II, this was the largest potato shipping company in the nation, helped out considerably by his military contract to provide dehydrated potatoes and onions.

Simplot’s fortune really skyrocketed in 1967 when he made a deal with Ray Kroc to supply potatoes for McDonald’s fries. McDonald’s had a quality control problem. It had used fresh russet potatoes that each restaurant cut itself. But there was a 3-month period each year where good fresh russets couldn’t be found and that led to quality control issues, which upset Kroc. So Simplot said he would process the potatoes into fries, freeze them, and ship them frozen around the country. Coming up with frozen fries made Simplot a billionaire. It actually was a big technological shift, as previous attempts to freeze fries had led to the potatoes turning to mush. By 1972, all McDonald’s fries were frozen and about half of them were Simplot.

Simplot used his wealth in all sorts of ways, investing in food processing companies around the world, ski resorts, oil, tech, you name it. He was the lead investor in Micron, which became a leading semicondcuter producer. By 2007, he was worth $3.6 billion according to Forbes. He was as shady as any capitalist. In the mid-1970s, he received a 6-year ban from commodity trading after he was found to be manipulated potato futures in Maine. He also had a slight problem with not reporting his proper income to the IRS, which led to a $40,000 fine in 1977. He would write to influential newspapers and journalists, talking up the stock of the company he owned, which wasn’t precisely ethical. Of course he was conservative as all hell. His daughter married a young man on the make named Butch Otter, who was brought into the company, eventually became president, and is now the truly horrific governor of Idaho.

Simplot stepped down at the head of his company in 1973 but remained deeply involved for the rest of his life. Simplot lived a very long time, dying in May 2008, at the age of 99.

J.R. Simplot is buried in Morris Hill Cemetery, Boise, Idaho.

If you would like this series to visit more people key to the development of American fast food, you can donate to cover the expenses here. I’ve already seen Ray Kroc, so maybe, oh I don’t know, Dave Thomas of Wendy’s or Ivar Coulson, inventor of the milk shake. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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