Heirloom Tomato History

I planted my tomato plants this afternoon. I used a totally unscientific method of selecting varieties to grow. I chose 'Granny Cantrell's German' tomato, 'Williams Striped' tomato, 'Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter' and 'Burpee's Beefsteak' tomato. I chose the heirloom varieties simply because I thought the names were interesting. I chose the 'Beefsteak' because, tried and true, cut into half-inch delicious slices, it compliments a hamburger perfectly.
It turns out, the varieties I chose have interesting backgrounds as well as funny names. 'Granny Cantrell' was grown by and named for Lettie Cantrell of West Liberty, Kentucky. She had obtained the seeds to this particular tomato variety from a soldier returned from Germany after World War II in the 1940's. She liked this variety so much it was the only type of tomato she ever grew. Granny died in 2005 at the ripe old age of 96.

'Williams Striped Tomato', is a red and yellow variety striped inside and out. Georgia and Rene Emonds received some tomato seeds from an elderly neighbor who had saved them from a variety he had grown, having stashed the seeds in a pill bottle. The neighbor couldn't remember why or when he had saved the seeds. The Emonds started some seedlings, grew the plants and passed some seeds along to Merlyn Niedens. Niedens grew and submitted the variety to the 2005 Heirloom Garden show where it was named favorite of tomatoes that year. That's my motto - "Save Everything". You just never know.

Last, but not least of my heirloom varieties, is 'Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter'. This tomato was developed in the early 1930's in Logan, West Virginia, by a (car) radiator repairman, M.C. 'Radiator Charlie' Byles. Charlie had no experience breeding tomatoes, yet he made a successful cross of the four largest tomatoes he could find. Byles sold his seedlings for $1 each in the 1940's to gardeners who would drive up to 200 miles just to buy his famous plants. No wonder. This variety is reputed to bear tasty fruit that averages 2 1/2 lbs. each. Charlie was able to pay off his $6,000 mortgage in 6 years by selling his plants.


  1. I like a plant with an interesting name and story! Have you grown heirlooms before? Do you have much luck saving seeds - especially if you grow more than one variety?

  2. I grew "Cherokee Purple" a couple of years ago. Word to the wise - don't grow heirlooms in a container (they're way too big!) I probably won't save seeds as a farmer in town grow 30 varieties of heirloom seedlings. It's just difficult to decide which ones to take home.


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