While most of us garden to seek a little fun, satisfaction and relief from the billion-dollar manufactured noise of Politics 2016 – (And I will soon write my book-long take on this subject titled “Children in Suits”) – today we are going to talk about the controversial world of tomatoes.
I do so because Hidden Hill’s own General Manager Cheryl Alvey has again been growing her 18 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, an effort made slightly more difficult this spring by an absence of two items most popular with tomatoes – sunshine and consistently warm temperatures.
Nonetheless we now have them on sale at greatly reduced rates, the juicy, tasty, strangely-colored and odd-shaped varieties such as Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Egg Yolk, Tommy Toes and, of course, the ubiquitous Mortgage Lifter.
I now focus on Mortgage Lifter because it’s a tomato that comes with a lawyer, primarily due to the debate over who created and named it – and what doesn’t come with a lawyer?
We all sort of already know that tomato’s general history: Somebody somewhere developed this two-to-four-pound monster and made enough money from its sales to “lift” the mortgage on the house.
But in seeking the detailed history, there seems to be some disagreement on whose mortgage got lifted.
The story most often told involves one Marshall Cletis Byles of Logan, West Virginia who had a small repair shop on the edge of town at the bottom of a hill. The legend goes that many old 1930s truck found the hill overwhelming, their radiators boiled over, and they had to coast back down the hill to one Marshall Cletis Byles’s radiator repair business – thus earning him the nickname “Radiator Charlie.”
What’s all this got to do with tomatoes? Well, Charlie was handy with a lot more than crescent wrenches. With no trained breeding experience, he lusted after a really “huuuge” beefsteak tomato, and over a period of six years – planting circles of other beefsteak, Italian and English tomatoes along with the ever-popular German Johnson cultivar – he developed what was first called “Radiator Charlie’s Tomato.”
If you’re still with me the story gets better. Supposedly this reddish- pink tomato behemoth was so popular people in the early 1940s took time out from the war effort to drive hundreds of miles and pay $1 each for seedlings of this tomato titan – which enabled Radiator Charlie to pay off the $6,000 mortgage on his admittedly modest abode.
As with all great Tomato Tales, there turns out to be another contender to this Mortgage Lifter Mantle. According to Wikipedia – which is literally only as good as it sources – the Mortgage Lifter may have first been developed and named by one William Estler or Barboursville, W.V., who developed the plant and registered the name in 1932, well before Radiator Charlie saw many trucks come sliding back down his hill.
William and his wife then traveled to various greenhouses to peddle their Mortgage Lifter, one of which sold it as their exclusive product until their lawyer didn’t bother to – or forgot to – renew their Mortgage Lifter copyright. History did not record the value of the Estler home.
That’s pretty much all I know or could learn on this subject. So bring your radiator on out to our place. We got heirloom tomatoes – of which some will soon be “huuuge” – and a lot more. Be sure to say “Hi” to Cheryl.