- Author: Jan Rhoades
It's that time of year again, when seed catalogs show up in the mailbox and the evening activity becomes sitting by the fire dreaming and planning next year's garden. It is the next best thing to actually working in the garden. Anyway, there are always a multitude of pages devoted to tomatoes. So many to try, so little time. Such an amazing array of sizes, colors, growth habits and juicy flavor notes just make my mouth water. I always have to try a few new varieties along with the old standbys (not to mention the orphans I adopt). Needless to say, my garden will often sport a dozen tomato plants, so I become the neighborhood supplier. Sheesh!
This last season, I decided I had to plant the tomato named 'Mortgage Lifter.' Somehow the moniker and lore of that plant had turned into a kind of garden earworm—not to be confused with tomato worm. I am a little skeptical about large tomatoes, and I certainly don't buy into the hype that surrounds some of them. But, this one, I was willing to give a shot. After all, this is a Tomato With History.
Right off the bat, I will tell you that at this point in my gardening career, I buy tomato plants from a reputable seed company. I am too old to mess around with starting plants indoors. I order for a late May delivery and plant them deep in fertile soil. I usually put cutworm collars around the seedlings and use homemade tomato cages. So, last spring, along with a few others, my Mortgage Lifter was planted and I was wowed right away. It grew strong and sturdy and big! It was my first producer – even before my early bearing varieties, and the tomatoes were, indeed, sizeable! Most were about the size of softball and, I have to say, they gave meaty slices that, to me, tasted just the way I imagine a tomato should taste, especially in the depths of winter. They are certainly not in the same league as Cherokee Purples (sigh) – but they are definitely right up there. Finally, they pumped out pounds of yummy tomatoes all season, right up to the first frost. I was most certainly impressed – the hype is true!
So, on to the history. 'Mortgage Lifter' is one of the most famous heirloom tomatoes around. A few different stories exist relating how they were developed and who they were developed by. One source claims that the cultivar was developed by William Esther of Barboursville, West Virginia in 1922 and that Esther registered the name in 1932. However, the best-known and best-loved story involves M.C. Byles of Logan, West Virginia, who developed this tomato in the 1930's. He was known to all as "Radiator Charlie" because he ran a radiator repair business at his home, which was situated at the bottom of a steep hill. When logging or mining trucks laden with goods labored up the hill, their radiators often boiled over and they rolled back down to Charlie's house for repairs.
Mr. Byles had no formal education, having worked in the cotton fields since he was 4 years old; however, he loved to garden and grow vegetables, especially tomatoes. As it was the Depression, he worried about the mortgage on his house. He decided to develop a tomato that he could sell. He wanted a large, beefsteak type tomato, so he decided to crossbreed four of the largest-fruited tomatoes he could find. He chose a 'German Johnson' to plant, and in a circle around it, he planted 3 other varieties: another beefsteak, an Italian variety, and an English variety. He hand pollinated the 'German Johnson' with a baby's ear syringe, and after 6 years of trials, he had what he felt was a stable plant that produced large, tasty tomatoes. In a Living Earth interview with M.C. recorded in 1985, he says that he sold plants for $1.00 apiece (pretty pricey for Depression time) and that people came from as far away as 200 miles to buy the plants. In six years, he made enough money to pay off his $6,000 mortgage, so he called the tomato 'Mortgage Lifter,' but tomato-loving folks called it Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter.
Now if that story doesn't inspire you to give it a try, here are the particulars. 'Mortgage Lifter' is a fairly disease-resistant (VFN) Beefsteak type tomato. It is indeterminate and bears one to two pound fruit (Burpee says up to 4 pounds!). It is a very productive tomato, often described as pink or red, and is very meaty with few seeds and great tomato flavor. It is not unheard of for the plant to reach 9 feet! There is even one company called Beakman's that sells Mortgage Lifter Heirloom Tomato Pasta Sauce. And, just to maintain the spirit of this legendary plant, they have an annual small farmer's competition in which payment of the farm mortgage is the grand prize. Seeds and plants for this variety can be found at just about every gardening source.
Just remember, though his mortgage was paid off, there's just two things that money can't buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes.
A bit of an aside. If you love vegetable history and lore, I came across this book, Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time, which won the Garden Writers' Association Gold Award in 2016. It includes information about selecting and growing heirloom tomatoes as well as some of his favorite heirloom tomato stories. The central message of the author, Craig LeHoullier, is “Heirlooms are living things, and, unless they are grown and saved and shared and relished, they'll go extinct.” LeHoullier co-leads a tomato-breeding project that has succeeded in putting 70 new compact growing varieties in various seed catalogs. This will be the topic of his next book, which he plans to self-publish in the fall. Each of the following companies carry seeds of all these varieties and some seeds of LeHoullier's full-size heirloom tomatoes.
- Victory Seeds
- The Tomato Growers Supply Company
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
- Sample Seed
- Johnny's Selected Seeds
- Seed Savers Exchange
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Catalog
Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest Catalog