Growing up in a NC Southern farming family.
No one wants to buy rotten tomatoes.
When you are poor and don’t have a lot, you don’t really know it at first. That was the conclusion I’ve come to as I reflect on my younger years.
My Grandparents had seven children, 4 Sons and 3 Daughters. Their parents and their family grew up around Casar, NC in Cleveland County, NC. They were Scotch, Irish and English that were descended from early colonist and first settled in and around the North Eastern areas of Pennsylvania & New York.
The area of NC they settled in was well known the the native Indian tribes of the Cherokee & Catwaba as fertile farm land and bountiful with hunting and fishing opportunities.
The native Indians had a long history of supporting early colonist with trade and their knowledge of farming the rich soil of the NC foothills.
It was here that my Great Great Grandfather settled and where my Grandfather grew up and learned his farming skills. They grew corn, pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupes, muscadines, grapes and tomatoes. Mostly what they raised was to live on but my Grandfather Ross Otis figured out how to filter the select seeds from the select tomato plants and was an early adopter of the growth and cultivation of Hybrid tomato. The primary type of tomatoe of the day was the Heirloom. There were Early Red, Pink Lady, President Garfield, Cherokee Purple and Mortgage Lifters.
Ross Otis began to understand the importance of the Hybrid in the early 1940’s. With the advent of the automobile came trucking and with that shipping and transport of fruits and vegetables across the country and with the emerging Interstate Highway system came greater access of this more hardy type of tomato. They had a thicker skin and were not as prone to perishing as the Hybrid.
Ross Otis also understood their value in barter for other high demand perishable fruits and vegetables. He became and expert at seed selection. His abilities were noted. He began to get calls for his Hybrids in the farmers markets in the nearby larger cities of Charlotte & Gastonia, NC and Columbia, SC.
As their 7 children got older, they needed to be educated and needed to find jobs. The migration toward the populated areas of Gaston and Mecklenburg Counties had begun and they were part of that early wave drawn to jobs in the textile industry.
Gaston County was a magnet for these opportunities. The early Firestone Mill that came to be known as Loray Mill was established to manufacture the threads for rubber sidewall tires and emerged as one of the South’s largest mills dedicated to supporting Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company.
Other mills sprung up and textile jobs were plentiful. All of this was aided by the availability of cheap labor due to the shift toward large scale perishable framing in Mexico and cheaper labor in Southern California.
What emerged was a ready and available workforce to fill the textile mill jobs that were growing in and around Gaston County, NC. With jobs came money and other business to support the manufacture and shipment of these products by rail trucking.
The areas of Gaston & Meckleburg County began to grow at a quick pace. The railroad network grew, the Interstate Highway System grew the momentum was propelled by the alignment of all these elements creating the foundation for an attractive location for other business.
The farming families came down out of the foothills and the mountains. They came for jobs, they came for the hope of prosperity for themselves and future generations. They came for the promise of the American dream.
This was the promise that motivated a young Ross Otis to seize the day. He loaded up the truck and they moved to Gaston County.
Early on in the 1950’s they leased land in and around Dallas & Cherryville, NC in rural Gaston County. Ross Otis brought his tomato seeds. He brought the Big Boy, the Better Boy, the Early Girl the Sweet 100 and the Beef Steak tomatos and their seeds. With each planting and harvest the seed selection grew.
The Sons grew older and they were able to help in the farming. They leased the tractors and tillers, the trucks and warehouse space. The window of opportunity was small for the perishables.
I have distinct early memories of spending time with my Grandfather Ross Otis. My first Cousin, Reese Dennis , was like my brother. growing up. We were close in age and similar in temperament and interests. Somehow of all the other Cousins we were selected to help Ross Otis in the family enterprise.
By the early 50’s R.O. had moved the family into the city of Gastonia. He bought a house on Modena Street and built a refrigerated warehouse in the rear of the property. He established leases on rich farming plots throughout Gaston County. He was highly skilled at his craft. He would be asked to bring his tractor to plough and to till for other small are farmers.
Not only was R.O. skilled with farming equipment he was handy with tools and was known as an accomplished mechanic. He could turn wrenches and fix things. Tractor, truck and automobile engines, refrigeration equipment and plumbing.
Some of my earliest memories as a young boy age 10 or 11 was of my Grandfather spreading the seeds out over the dining room table. Each select seed had it’s own coded envelope. He had a book. Each book was a record of the years harvest tomato and the accompanying seeds by Hybrid name. This was the secret of his success. Year after year of growth, selection and cross pollination.
My Grandmother Lucy would fuss at him because his work was never easy or fast. Lucy had mouths to feed. She wanted Ross Otis out of her kitchen.
When the tomatoes were ‘coming in’ they needed to be picked off the vines. Time was of the essence as this was a perishable product with a short life cycle. Me and my Cousin Reese would work in the refregeirated warehouse. There were stacks and stacks of crates filled with tomatoes.
Not all tomatoes ripen at exactly the same rate. This meant they needed to be ‘graded’. R.O. taught us how to grade. This meant sorting them by size and color. Color was an indication of ripeness and ripeness was an indication of time to market. No one wants to buy rotten tomatoes.
Once all the tomatoes were graded we would insert them into the clear cellophane top boxes. The ripeness could easily be seen. We placed these boxes in large crates and the crates were sorted and stacked in the refrigerated warehouse.