Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato

Radiator Charlie and his Mortgage Lifter tomatoes in 1964. (c) Jeff McCormack

The name he went by was Charlie or just plain MC and “he’d get mad if anybody said it is Marshall Cletis Byles,” his grandson said. Charlie was a hardworking man with no formal education.

“Well, I’ve always had a mind of doing things that nobody else couldn’t do. I never been to school a day in my life but anything I wanted to do, I done it,” Charlie said.

He got his start in farming at age four helping his mom pick cotton in the fields of North Carolina.

“Come out from under there,” cried his mom one day.                                                        “What do you want?” Charlie asked.                                                                                    “You’re going to work.”                                                                                                                “I’m too little to work,” Charlie countered.                                                                               “No, you are not.”                                                                                                                              “I had to go out there and start pickin’ cotton,” Charlie said.

He took a variety of jobs during the lean years of the Great Depression. As a young man he served in the National Guard. He toured Appalachia earning money as a wrestler taking home a dollar for every minute he lasted in the ring. “I never lost, but very few times,” Charlie boasted. He also learned to fly small planes and served as a pilot for airmail. Eventually he settled as a mechanic repairing the local coal mining trucks of Logan, West Virginia and that is where he took on his handle “Radiator Charlie.”

In the early 1940s Radiator Charlie turned his indomitable attention to tinkering with tomatoes. He wanted to create something big, meaty and with few seeds. “What I did I took ten plants and put them in a circle and put one in the center,” he said.

He planted seeds from four tomato varieties of the largest fruiting plants he could find and used them to surround a different type of tomato in the center called a German Johnson. He gathered the pollen from the circle of plants and used it to pollinate the German Johnson, whose seeds he then saved and started again the next season. He repeated the process for the next six years until he felt satisfied with the growth habits of his new tomato.

The new variety of plant he created produced meaty, colossal-sized tomatoes weighing in at over four pounds in some instances. Word began to spread about the incredible new tomato good ‘ol Radiator Charlie was growin’. At a time not far removed from the economic hardship and scarcity of the 1930s when people relied on their own gardens for food, and when the government was  promoting “victory gardens” during WWII, people wanted to know where they could get their green thumbs on the seeds of this new wonder plant. And soon Radiator Charlie was in business peddling his own specialty strain of tomato to eager gardeners.

People drove from as far away as 200 miles to buy Charlie’s tomatoes for a dollar a piece, which in the 1940s was a heck of a bit a change for a vegetable seedling. Yet, he sold so many plants that he was able to pay off his six thousand dollar mortgage on his house in six years.

And the legendary Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato was born, etching his name in the annals of Americana forever, and providing vegetable gardeners to this day with an exceptional choice for their backyard plots.



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