Vol. IX, No. 1, 1996

Red Gold Ozark Tomatoes

By Robert McGill

Robert McGill owns White Oak Press, near Reeds Spring, Missouri. This article first appeared in the book, In the Heart of Ozark Mountain Country, published by White Oak Press in 1992. Although the article focuses on tomato growing and canning in Stone and Taney Counties, Missouri, the descriptions will not be far off for similar enterprises in other Ozarks communities.
So this local fellow got plumb aggervated at his ornery hawgs. Took his muzzle-loader and filled it with seeds of the love apple [tomato] and shot at them hawgs. Them seeds took root and growed. When them plump, red 'maters was ripe, they felled off and rolled down the hillside, peeling 'emselves as they gathered speed. Bounced right into a boiling cauldron, and that how we knew we cud grow 'maters in these hills.

Ozarks Folktale

This oft-told tale expresses two themes commonly found in Ozark tales: good fortune and a desire to obtain wealth without effort. Unfortunately, despite the suggestions of the tale, tomato growing is extremely hard work. While the industry made significant contributions to the local economy from the 1890s until the 1960s, it also produced oceans of laborers' sweat. Life was hard in Ozark Mountain Country, and growing and canning tomatoes was its epitome: tough, exhausting, and insufferably hot labor.

The Ozarks met the basic requirements for a tomato canning industry. Tomatoes would flourish on Stone and Taney County hillsides. Sparkling springs, bubbling out of many hollows, provided abundant water for washing, scalding, and cooking tomatoes. And the farmers' large extended families provided the work force for the tomato fields and canneries.

The tomato canning industry lasted for nearly seventy years. The first cannery in the two county area was built by Waldo Powell in 1895 in the central part of Stone County, near Talking Rocks Cave. Accurate records, if they ever existed, have been lost, but by the 1920s there were probably sixty small canneries in Stone and Taney Counties. In the 1930s, when production peaked, large canneries expanded and drove some of the smaller ones out of business. By that time, too, a large and politically astute organization, the Ozark Canners Association, held a yearly meeting, usually in Springfield, and lobbied for the industry's interests. Although the industry was still large enough during World War II to pride itself on the contributions it made to the war effort, it dwindled and died in the 1960's.

In the 1890s when canning first became an industry, the work started the winter before the first crop was planted. A farmer and his children--the more the better--began an onslaught on virgin timberland with cross-cut saw and chopping axe. Small trees and brush were cut and removed and large trees were girdled to kill them. North or east-facing hillsides were favored because they would be partially shielded from the blazing heat of the afternoon summer sun. When the large trees were dead, small trees removed, and as many stumps as possible uprooted, work began on the soil.


Mules were the preferred draft animal for preparing the soil. Farmers hitched the laboring animals to a bull-tongue plow, then criss-crossed the field at one foot intervals, digging up the roots of the trees and loosening the ground. All available children were put to work in the field dragging the dead roots to a central spot where they were stacked and burned. Man and beast passed over the field another time with a spring harrow to work out the rough spots. Finally, just before planting, a single mule, hitched to a smaller single stock plow, again criss-crossed the field, this time at four foot intervals, to mark the intersections where the tomato plants would be set.

Raising tomato plants was a two-stage operation: first, seeds were planted in a small area to produce seedlings; later, the young plants were transplanted to the hillside fields to mature and produce fruit. Tomato seeds were traditionally planted on the second day of April, which was also school meeting and election day. Tomato producers discovered that a perfect place to plant tomato seeds was in the ground where a brush pile had been burned. The heat from the fire killed out weed seeds, allowing the fragile new tomato plants to emerge without competition. If necessary, farmers would protect the seedlings from frost on a cold night by covering them with paper. The second stage, transplanting the fragile plants in the fields, began six weeks after planting seeds, during the middle of May when the spring sun had warmed the ground. Tender six inch tomato plants were dug from the ground and bundled, to be planted in the field. Since transplanting on steep, rocky hillsides was time-consuming, the task was best suited to large families. One person would lay plants at the intersections where the seedlings would be set. Several other family members, walking down the rows, poked holes in the ground with a small punch called a dibble, set the plants by placing them into the holes, and covered the roots with soil. Tomato fields averaged four acres. A fifteen acre field required an extraordinary effort.

Farmers prayed for rain in the early summer while they weeded the tomato plants. A farmer, trailing his mule which was hitched to a cultivator, trod up and down each row, slowly shifting the soil and uprooting the weeds. The first green knobs had set by the first of July, and the pinkish orange tomatoes developed by mid-August. Harvest lasted until the cool weather of autumn. Family members picking the ripe fruit on the rocky hillsides on hot August days were motivated by the anticipation of reward for their summer's effort, for tomatoes were immediately transported to the canning factories where the growers were paid for their fruit.

Tomato production, of course, changed over the years. In the 1920s, fertilizer began to be used and yields increased. When hybrid tomatoes were developed in the 1930s, yields increased even more. Tractors replaced horses and mules in the 1940s, and the work became somewhat easier. But nothing ever replaced the arduous, backbreaking chore of picking tomatoes by hand.

While the canning season was filled with hard work, it was also a festive occasion because families, relatives, and friends would come to the canneries--sometimes from miles around--to work, laugh, and play together. While they worked, hill folk could catch up on community gossip, and discuss politics, religion, and family matters. Though laborers often lived in crowded bedrooms, abandoned houses, and tents during canning season, the season was always anticipated because of the camaraderie and because, for some, picking and canning were the only sources of cash income.

Nixa, Missouri cannery, ca. 1928. Photo: Walter Jones.


Before the turn of the century, some of the very first canneries were located outdoors. In preparation for canning, family members would set cookers and cappers under shade trees. Harvested tomatoes were then scalded and skinned. Early tomato cans were manufactured in eastern steel towns, such as Pittsburgh, and shipped by rail to the nearest railroad. The early cans were sealed by the manufacturer, except for a small, one and a half inch diameter hole in the top. At the canneries tomatoes were squeezed through funnels and into the cans. The cans, after being hand-soldered shut, were cooked, cooled, and stacked to ready them for a buyer. Only 500 to 1,000 cans a year were processed by these early canners.

Eventually, canneries were set up inside buildings, insufferably hot buildings since they captured the heat from the hot August sun while the cauldrons of hot water inside raised the temperature even further. And while men and children were busy picking and transporting tomatoes from the fields, women stood on the production lines in the hot, humid buildings, preparing, packing, and canning tomatoes. The process of canning was essentially the same in all canneries. The heavy crates of newly-picked tomatoes were first spread out on tables where poor tomatoes were culled. The remaining tomatoes were washed, poured into a hot vat, scalded, and then dumped into buckets. Buckets, three at a time, were placed on a conveyer belt and passed to each woman. The first bucket contained the scalded tomatoes, while the other two were empty. Each woman then peeled the tomatoes from her own full bucket, placing the peeled tomatoes in one of the empty buckets while letting the core and skins fall into the third bucket. The worker received a token for every bucket of tomatoes she peeled, and then at the end of the week she redeemed the tokens for wages. By using ultra-sharp skinning spoons to core the tomatoes, the women could pop-squeeze the fruit right out of its skin. If the skin stuck to the tomato, the sharp blade of the "tomato spoon" was used to cut the tomato skin off. But let a spoon slip, and a woman would find her hand gushing with blood.

The peeled tomatoes were packed into cans, sealed, and cooked to preserve the contents. Mechanical sealers soon replaced the hand soldering iron, and the number of cans that could be sealed increased to several hundred an hour in the large canneries. The final process in canning was cooling, boxing, and storing the processed tomatoes so they could be shipped to buyers.

Before the railroads were built, canners hauled a few tomatoes to Hollister and shipped them by boats to markets down the White River. But with the corning of the railroads, industry buyers for food wholesale companies began arriving by rail. The buyers, who scoured the countryside in the fall for tomatoes, supplied labels from their parent companies, and shipped box loads of tomatoes to stores across the nation and even to foreign countries. Ironically, the very conditions which improved the production of the tomato industry also brought about its demise in the Ozarks. The innovations--the use of fertilizer, hybrid seeds, and tractors--were better suited to large fields in California and Florida than to hillside patches in the Ozarks. And inside the canneries, newer, more expensive equipment was always needed to speed the process while federal regulations constantly upgraded sanitary requirements. Ozarks canneries simply could not justify the massive expenditures required to continue in the business.

World War II artificially supported the canning industry, but once the war ended, canneries began to shut down. Those canning factories situated along the railroads survived the longest. Crane, Elsey, Galena, Reeds Spring, and Branson all had canneries into the late 1950's, or longer. The last canning factory in the area, which belonged to Bob Emerson of Reeds Spring, closed in 1968.

For years the tomato canning industry was a way of life for many Stone and Taney County farmers. The industry supported the financial needs of families and, in turn, families built much of their social and community life around the industry. Several Stone County canners became prominent in the region-wide Ozark Canners Association; four served as president: Roy Nelson, Porter Lucas, W. C. Cope, and Bob Emerson. Their efforts contributed to uniform quality in the product, greater efficiency in the processing plants, and the establishment of labeling and insecticide regulations. The distinction of being the most colorful individual associated with the industry undoubtedly belonged to Frank Mease of Reeds Spring, who at one time owned seven canneries. This entrepreneur, who became wealthy through his agricultural enterprises, also wrote stories for health food magazines and, to show off his good health, would, when he was past eighty, stand on his head atop a straight-back chair in the bed of a pickup truck--while his son drove him through town.

Some people find it difficult to believe that many of today's heavily wooded hillsides were once tomato fields, but the plow scars and old farm roads, still visible in many of these woods, attest to the legacy of the tomatoes.

In the summertime tomatoes are still available at roadside stands. Often, these tomatoes are raised on the same hillsides, by descendants of the same families who produced them for the canneries. And the fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes remain a testament to the quality of Ozark produce.


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