Special to the Courier
By Tricia Nelson
Commissioned by the Works Progress Administration during the depression, the mural in the Crystal Springs post office depicts a scene once familiar to older citizens of the area. In the background, men are working in a neat field of new plants. Tomato vines are heavy with brilliant fruit and in the foreground men are carrying field boxes of green tomatoes. Ladies carefully wrap each green globe in a thin sheet of blue paper and place them in a lug.
The scene harkens to a time when field crops occupied the attention of many of the town’s citizens. At one point, a sign stretched across one of the downtown streets displaying a huge cornucopia spilling beautiful vegetables and proudly proclaimed Crystal Springs to be the TOMATROPOLIS OF THE WORLD.
Among the pioneers who grew and marketed the delicacy, in addition to other crops, were Augustus Lotterhos and his nephew, C. M. Huber, whose firm attained the prominence of being the largest shipper of tomatoes in the United States; S. R. Evans, a gentleman proud to be called “Uncle Sing” and even prouder to be known as “Tomato King”; W. H. Barron, one of the first shippers of green wrapped tomatoes; N. L. Hutchison, pioneer in vegetables from Tennessee; Benjamin R. Ford, a planter who was first famous for marketing peaches and grapes; R. B. Thomas, owner and manager of four successful farms; F. M. (Francis Marion) Brewer, developer of Lanah Berry named for his daughter and first to grow peas, beans, and asparagus on a large scale; John Hall, highly successful planter; John W. Day, who added peaches to his crops of vegetables; Glen Ervin, far-seeing truck farmer for forty years; and B. W. Mathis, known as the “Cabbage King”.
Children helped in those days. There were even special school hours during the most demanding times of the growing season. It was said that if a child was old enough to eat, he was old enough to prune tomatoes. Growing crops in those days required many hands, hard work, and a great number of hours.
In the period from December 1-15, hundreds of truck growers prepared hotbeds, glass-topped compartments that dotted the fields. About six by ten feet, they were generally fertilized with barnyard manure and leaf mold. In January, farmers broadcast the seeds in the hotbeds or planted them in drills with the plants about three or four inches apart. Children weeded plants and assisted in the preparation of the field.
Beetles, blight, and wilt had to be fought constantly; however, the most dreaded enemy was the cold. For the benefit of the growers, there was a warning squeedunk that sent all workers scurrying to cover the tender plants in their early stages. In some years they were scurrying to cover plants as late as the end of April.
The tomatoes were carefully nursed until they reached the green mature stage or began to show a faint blush of pink on the blossom end; then they were picked, loaded, and hauled off to town to be sold and shipped.
A festival air prevailed as the long lines of wagons, which eventually gave way to trucks, filled the streets. The drivers and helpers sometimes made a picnic of the occasion, gathering around, swapping tales and drinking soda pop.
Those years were so successful that a giant Tomato Festival was held in 1938. The festivals only lasted for a few years. There was a pageant, a parade, bands, and speeches. Each of the three festivals had a Tomato Queen, but everyone knew that the tomato was King. World War II put an end to the celebrations.
Thanks to the Chamber of Commerce, the Tomato Festival was resurrected. Although the tomato shipping days are over, Crystal Springs continues to celebrate its heritage. Here’s to twenty years of “tomato days” success.