Contact: Joe Vargo, Perris Public Information Officer
Phone: 951-956-2120
jvargo@cityofperris.org

Ellers Family Honored at Rods & Rails and Potato Festival

Thiago Arsola, 4, creates a potato face as part of the celebration during the annual Potato Festival June 9 in Perris. The event coincided with the 13th annual Rods and Rails Festival
Thiago Arsola, 4, creates a potato face as part of the celebration during the annual Potato Festival June 9 in Perris. The event coincided with the 13th annual Rods and Rails Festival.

Driven from their Oklahoma farms in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the Eller family headed west, establishing new roots in the Perris Valley.

Eventually, the three Eller brothers—Peter, Jay and Jack—set up a trucking company that specialized in harvesting the Valley’s bountiful potato crop and delivering it to packing sheds, where the spuds were graded and shipped by rail across the country.

They traveled the harvest from Perris to Northern California, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona in the 1950s and 60s, sometimes harvesting as much as four million pounds of potatoes in a single day.

Their all-white trucks rolling down Perris streets became a part of the City’s fabric, so much so that an area artist fashioned an 8-foot tall plaster of Paris artwork shaped like a potato and dubbed it “Potato Pete” after Pete Eller.

Pete Eller, 84, stands next to a replica of the “Potato Pete” artwork created decades ago as part of Perris’ annual Potato Festival
Pete Eller, 84, stands next to a replica of the “Potato Pete” artwork created decades ago as part of Perris’ annual Potato Festival.

The Eller brothers have since retired, passing on their business to a new generation. Jack Eller died 10 years ago.

But brothers Pete and Jay still live in the Perris Valley and Saturday were the guests of honor at the annual Rods and Rails and Potato Festival. About 100 family members, friends and former employees turned out to celebrate the family and its contribution to the region’s economy.

“The Eller family was an instrumental part of Perris Valley’s potato industry,” said Katie Keyes, a member of the Perris Valley Historical and Museum Association. “They were one of the hardest-working families in our valley and it was certainly a family thing, as their children worked along with them in the fields.”

Pete Eller, 84, said the family survived, and thrived, because everyone knew the value of hard work. A typical day lasted 16 hours during which
time 250 eight-ton loads. Traveling to distant locales meant driving
over two-lane highways, journeys that could take days. Although they
traveled throughout the west, the brothers said the Perris Valley was
always home.

Pete Eller and Jay Eller ran a trucking company that harvested millions of tons of potatoes during the 1950s and 60s
Pete Eller and Jay Eller ran a trucking company that harvested millions of tons of potatoes during the 1950s and 60s.

“We were like the Walmart of potatoes,” Pete Eller said of the family’s heyday. “It was hard work but we were young. We were poor people who worked hard to earn a living. Perris was a small place back then and everybody knew everybody else. It was a really good place to live—and it still is.”

Pete Eller said he didn’t think much of the “Potato Pete” creations that lined D Street during the potato festivals of decades ago.

“I thought they were making fun of me but I now it’s a badge of honor,” he said.

Randy Eller, the son of Jack Eller who now carries on the family legacy, said the potato fields in and around Perris were his playground.

“It was a great place to grow up and learn hard work and at the same
time have a little money in your pocket,,” Randy Eller said. “We had a
great time. It was a great place to grow up.”

Jay Eller, Wanda Eller, Dorothy Eller, Pete Eller and Randy Eller listen while Katie Keyes explains the family’s pivotal role in the Perris Valley potato industry
Jay Eller, Wanda Eller, Dorothy Eller, Pete Eller and Randy Eller listen while Katie Keyes explains the family’s pivotal role in the Perris Valley potato industry.

Jay Eller, 81, said the family never expected to be honored at the Rods and Rails and Potato Festival.

“It makes you feel good,” Jay Eller said. “We are very honored.”

Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley, who grew up in Perris and knew the Eller families for decades, called them a

“wonderful family involved in all aspects of the potato industry.”

“They are the salt of the earth,” Ashley said. “They worked hard, effectively and efficiently.”