Saturday, August 30, 2014

West Virginia's Most Famous Tomato - The Story of Radiator Charlie & The Mortgage Lifter

Earlier this spring we posted about the WV 63 tomato and what great heritage it has.  Little did I know that there is a second tomato - and a very famous one - that originated in the Mountain State. 

Growing up in WV I have always eaten the popular and flavorful Mortgage Lifter tomato.  It is a terrific tomato.  HEIRLOOM...LEGENDARY..HUGE...BEEFSTEAK.

According to  A Customer Favorite! "This huge heirloom beefsteak (up to 4 lb.; average 2½ lb.) consistently wins taste-tests. Developed in the 1930s by a gardener who planted the four biggest varieties he knew and crossed one with pollen from the other three. He did this for six seasons and created a variety that produced immense, tasty fruit. He sold the plants for $1 a piece and paid off his $6000 mortgage in 6 years." 
 Photo From Burpee
I learned this summer that the Mortgage Lifter has WV roots (pun intended)!  I love doing research and started checking the Internet for stories.  This tomato has HISTORY!   There are a lot of sites with information but a couple of the ones that I found particularly fascinating are linked below. 
In short, "Radiator Charlie" was from Logan, WV.  Marshall Cletis Byles was his real name and he owned a small truck repair shop at the bottom of a mountain in the Southern WV coalfields.  The mountain was well known for causing trucks to overheat and so his business was perfectly located. The trucks would overheat climbing the mountain and then roll right back down to his shop for the needed radiator repair.  Thus, he earned his nickname - although how Charlie got in the name is still a puzzle to me!
Byles was a gardener and took on the challenge of creating a large, meaty tomato that could feed an entire family.  The following is excerpted from

"He started with four tomatoes: German Johnson, Beefsteak, an unknown Italian variety, and an unknown English variety. Byles then grew plants from each variety and planted 3 Beefsteak, 3 of the Italian variety and 3 of the English variety in a circle. In the center of the circle, he planted the German Johnson Tomato.
With a baby syringe, he cross-pollinated the German Johnson with pollen from the other 9 plants in the circle. He saved the seeds, which he planted the following year. Byles then selected the best seedlings, and planted them in the middle of a circle, surrounded by the other seedlings. For 6 years, he repeated this process and cross-pollinated the strongest plants in the center with pollen from the plants in the circle.
When he was satisfied that he had grown a stable tomato that met his criteria, he sold the seedlings for $1.00 each, which was a hefty sum back in the 1940s."
The Tomato Geek lists the following characteristics:
Mortgage Lifter Tomato Characteristics
- Tomatoes are red and pink
- Tomatoes are amongst the most flavorful heirloom tomatoes
- Tomatoes are big and average 2 to 4 pounds
- Tomatoes start bearing fruit in about 80 days
- Tomatoes are on the meaty side
- Tomatoes have very few seeds
- Tomatoes produce an abundant crop
- Tomatoes are disease resistant
- Tomatoes will produce until frost kills the plant
- Indeterminate Tomato variety that will keep growing as a vine if not pruned
I read many Mortgage Lifter taste reviewsand whether or not people would grow it again.  The positives far outnumber the negatives.  The tomato grows very well here in WV and in hot southern states.  There are mixed reviews from northern states that have cooler temperatures, especially in the evening, and some of the western states like Utah that have sandy, desert type soil.  This tomato is not fond of cooler temperatures.    I have learned from my seed share growing experience this summer that very definitely that it is all about location, location, location! 
Most interesting though is the story titled "Mortgage Lifter" that I found linked on The Tomato Geek site on Living on Earth (an independent media program) by Jeff Young.  This is a transcript of an old radio talk show interview.  It's a wonderful historic tale.  Please take the time to read! You may also listen to the interview by clicking on the "play" button right under the title of the story and air date.  My favorite is the song at the end of the interview by Guy Clark titled “Home Grown Tomato” from ‘Keepers’ (Sugar Hill Records – 1970)
When I die don't bury me
In a box in a cold dark cemetery
Out in the garden would be much better
Where I could be pushin' up home grown tomatoes
Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes
What'd life be without home grown tomatoes
There's only two things that money can't buy
That's true love and home grown tomatoes.
Another link to the interview can be found on Tomato Dirt.
We will definitely be sending some Mortgage Lifter seeds  to the Shirley Meniece conference.  Hope you are lucky enough to get a few.  If not, you may easily find this wonderful tomato on many of the seed savers groups.  Give it a try!
Please give us some feedback next year as to what you think of this great tomato with a West Virginia history! 

No comments:

Post a Comment