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A potentiometer would overheat because when you tell it to turn the power down, it basically just runs the extra power through a heating element, which will probably catch it on fire for something that large. A dimmer switch changes the voltage that goes in, and is generally meant for incandescent lights. If you wired a regular old dimmer switch up, the motor would probably sound weird, and the dimmer switch or motor would break, possibly starting a fire. It's illegal to use a regular light dimmer switch on anything but an incandescent light socket. However, you can easily find a controller that will work. Look for a fan speed controller or motor speed controller. Make sure it's rated for the correct voltage and has an amp rating not exceeded by the fan's rating. These look like a dimmer switch but are designed to deliver the power the motor needs. See link http://www.lowes.com/lowes/lkn?action=productDetail&productId=70801-539-SFSQ-FH-IV&lpage=none
you have 3 control wires (the 3 speeds) and a common wire. the common wire will go directly from the fan motor to the power source/cord and the other 3 leads will run through the switch. you could even use a standard dimmer-style lighting rheostat and connect it to the common and "high" fan speed wire and have infinitely variable fan speeds. hope that helps.
Is it a single speed motor? All you need is a common toggle switch with two terminals and two positions (on/off). A good hardware store or farm supply store should have these, just check the amp. rating (10 should be good enough)
Always put the switch in the hot wire, usually black, maybe the fan is old enough that it doesn't have a polarized plug. If you change the cord, switch the hot side.