Next Saturday is Jacksonville’s 35th annual Tomato Fest. As is our practice at the museum, we’ve reviewed newspaper articles, letters, and other documents to see what the tomato harvest was like 80, 90, and 100 years ago.
In 1919, chief among the concerns of the tomato growers was the State of Texas requirement that their inspectors grade all tomatoes. By law, all four packs of tomatoes had to be labeled “Choice.” Better grade “Fancy” tomatoes were to be assembled in three packs. Northern buyers did not understand the new grading system and so would not purchase “Choice” grade tomatoes. An article in the February 21, 1919 Daily Progress called for a new grading system that dropped the term “Choice” and suggested there be “Fancy #1” and “Fancy #2” grades only. The growers also wanted to hire their own local inspectors who were believed to be more familiar with tomatoes and the local crop. George B. Terrell, a typical politician of the day, suggested they all write him a letter and then he’d see what could be done to change the system.
The growing season in 1919 appears to have been similar to 2019. They had a wet spring and cooler than usual May. The crop was late coming to market. On June 6th the first two rail cars of “Pinks”(not yet ripe, but starting to turn) were loaded by the East Texas Fruit and Truck Growers for shipment by tomato buyer/agent Evan & Peppers of Kansas City, MO. They had paid $2.25 per crate, a premium for the first load. There were not enough tomatoes to fill the rail car, so peaches were added to the load. Two days later, the Lone Star Agency filled a rail car with 1,086 crates at a price of $1.85 per crate. According to the newspaper, these were purchased by the agent with no specific buyer lined up, but with negotiations coming to a conclusion with several parties. On June 20th, “8 cars of Pinks,” the largest load of the season were outbound at 75 cents per crate. The 1919 dollar would be worth about $13.50 in 2019 money.
The rapid declines in the price of the tomatoes lead many growers to suspect there was collusion amongst the agents, buyers, and shippers. There was a lot of finger pointing and name calling, but nothing appears to have come of all the “dust up.”
Moving forward to 1929 and we find many of the price issues are still the same. A freeze in February took out most plants and farmers were scrambling to replant a new crop. It was noted in the paper that “The white canvas (tomato cold frames) from every hill, hillside, and valley, would indicate there is no decrease in tomato acreage this season.” In April of 1929, a meeting was held to improve the loading of tomatoes. A representative of the Missouri Pacific Railroad stated that of 514 cars shipped from Jacksonville the prior year, an average of $44.74 in damage claims were paid at the other end of the line. This was attributed to packing and loading practices. It was agreed that everyone would adhere to the new standards for crates and that the railroads would take over from the buyers’ agents the loading of the cars.
Suspicions of price fixing continued amongst the growers. Perhaps to prove a point, the Daily Progress printed the name of all buyers, agents, and railroad representatives that were staying at the Liberty Hotel. Hotel guests were accused of meeting in the hotel’s basement where they were not only fixing prices, but were also said to be playing poker and drinking illegal whiskey.
Although we celebrate 2019 as the 35th annual Tomato Fest, our celebration of the tomato harvest actually began in 1934 with a parade, crowning of a queen, and other celebrations. In 1939, Miss Sara Barber was crowned queen. The newspaper reports that over 20,000 visitors attended the celebration. The 1939 Tomato Festival opened with a demonstration of “Tomatoes at any Meal.” sponsored by the Home Demonstration Club. That afternoon there was a junior parade followed by a Tom Thumb wedding in City Park. Afterwards, visitors adjourned to Love’s Lookout Park for a picnic basket dinner and to enjoy the East Texas Folk Festival. Tuesday was the big day, with an estimated 20,000 people lining the streets to watch the tomato themed parade. A coronation ceremony was held following the parade at Ragsdale Park. On Wednesday the closing events, a fiddle contest, tomato eating contest, etc., were held, followed by an awards ceremony. King Tomato (played by Jacksonville Mayor Acker) arrived by passenger train to oversee the presentations. “Tomato Gro” night was held that evening. It was reported to be, “a night of revelry with street dancing, numerous side shows, and other entertainment being carried out.”
We hope you will visit your Vanishing Texana Museum during this year’s Tomato Fest. Debbie Griffin has loaned us her collection of historical Jacksonville tomato crate labels. The labels are works of art and reveal some fun names for the companies. We also have historical photos of the tomato shed operation and the Cherokee County Historical Commission will be there with displays about the 100 year history of the Texas Basket Factory. We’ll be open from 10 to 4 on Thursday and Friday, but will open at 9:00 on the Saturday morning of Tomato Fest. As always, admission and parking are free at our air conditioned 300 South Bolton location.