They called it the “Red Gold Boom.”
From the late 19th to the mid 20th century, tomatoes were an essential cash crop for Ozark Mountain farmers. A few months each year, the region’s tomato canneries — many of them bare-bones, mom-and-pop operations — cranked up in small towns or alongside fields and creeks. Millions of cases of Ozark-canned tomatoes made their way to kitchens across America.
Tomatoes were a natural addition to the mix for Ozark farmers, and they appealed to consumer tastes of the time, said Tom Dicke, a professor of business history at Missouri State University. The first cannery opened in Springdale, Arkansas in 1885, and by 1900, the region’s canneries accounted for 20 percent of canned tomatoes sold in the U.S.
“They’re starting to fade a little bit by the end of the 1930s, but then the war comes along, and they need all the production they can get, so the canneries have a revival. And then they fade in the early 50s,” he said.
They were still profitable, Dicke said, but by then, consumer tastes were shifting to big national brands like Del Monte, which sold more than just tomatoes. While they lasted, though, the canneries generated all-important income at a critical time in the farming year.
Doris Hayes grew up in Barry County, Missouri, and remembers planting tomatoes with her dad.
“Whatever we were doing, it was to earn money to go through the winter. As the crops came along, we started in the spring picking strawberries, then blackberries, then tomatoes, which was more or less a summer crop. My mother worked in the canning factory itself,” she said.
Doris’ husband, Carroll, helped his parents grow an acre or two of tomatoes each season. At 15, he went to work in the factory at Cross Hollows.
“Mr. Jones, who owned the factory, usually had the seed. He would furnish us with seed and fertilizer and that’s how we got the crop started, then he’d take that out of Dad’s check for the tomatoes,” Carroll Hayes said.
It was hot, hard work. Farmers brought towering stacks of crates to the factory doors. The men who worked in the canneries dunked wire baskets of tomatoes into a vat of boiling water, then carried them down to where women stood at long troughs peeling and coring the scalded tomatoes before they were sent to the packing line.
“When a woman wanted some tomatoes, she’d hold up her hand. They usually had a tag on the back of their neck. The guys had those hand punches, and they’d punch a spot out on that tag, and that’s how the women got paid, by the number of baskets of tomatoes they peeled in a day.”
The Millionaire tomato was surely one of the varieties grown for the Ozark packing houses. But it might have gone the way of the canneries if not for seed savers like Ed Henson. He ran the general store in Champion, where his daughter-in-law Betty still presides behind the counter, just down the road a bit from our Missouri Ozarks farm. In 1950, Ed got some of the seeds from a Mountain Grove man named Forester Hutsell, and he grew them for many years.
In 1995, Carol Cleveland of nearby Norwood, Missouri sent Millionaire seeds to Neil Gillard in Ontario, Canada. Neil sent a sample of seeds to us at Baker Creek, and we were tickled to learn that this old Ozarks variety, believed to have been lost, was being safeguarded for all those years in Canada!
Millionaire is a legendary old-timey beefsteak type tomato that is delightful eaten fresh or canned. With its sweet flavor and beautiful coral-pink color, it’s a classic throwback tomato — flavorful and juicy — that reminds us of the tasty tomatoes from childhood.
The preservation of the Millionaire tomato is a testament to the power of seed saving — and to the way a seed sometimes takes the long way home.