Pay your mortgage with heirloom tomatoes? It sounds pretty unbelievable today, but in the early 1930s, Marshall Cletis Byles did just that in his home town of Logan, West Virginia.
His story is an unusual one: Byles owned a small repair shop at the bottom of a mountain which was well known for making trucks overheat. The location of his shop generated a steady business as trucks overheated on the mountain and had to roll back down for some much necessary radiator work. This is where he earned his nickname “Radiator Charlie”. Despite the prominent location of his shop, the Great Depression was looming and Byles was looking for other ways to keep afloat.
Radiator Charlie didn’t have an easy life: he started working in the cotton fields of North Carolina at the age of 4, and as a result didn’t get adequate education. Yet he went on being a pilot, a wrestler, a mechanic, and then succeeding in growing one of the most popular heirloom tomatoes in the country.
The birth of the Mortgage Lifter Heirloom Tomato
With absolutely no experience breeding or growing tomatoes, Byles decided to develop a large and meaty tomato that could feed families. He looked for tomatoes available in his area that met his criteria and started with 4: 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 was of course named after him: Radiator Charlie’s Tomato. The tomato was so popular that people drove hundreds of miles to purchase the seedlings. With the proceeds of the sales, Charlie paid off his $6,000 mortgage in 6 years. Byles’ legacy is now called Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato.
In the mid 1980s, Radiator Charlie shared the seeds of the Mortgage lifter Tomato plants with the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which has contributed to keeping the variety alive and in high demand.
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
Byles died at the old age of 97, but his grandson sat down with him and recorded him talking about his life and the Mortgage Lifter Heirloom Tomatoes. Some of the recording is available in the archives of the radio show Living on Earth.
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