Radiator Charlie and his Mortgage Lifter Tomato

May 20, 2010

Takahashi Shōtei (Hiroaki), "Cat With Tomato Plant," 1931, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Felix Juda, © Takahashi Shōtei (Hiroaki)

While the woodblock for Cat with Tomato Plant (pictured above) was being carved in Japan in 1931, and the world was being rocked by the Great Depression, a man in Logan, West Virginia, named M.C. Byles was perhaps just starting to mull over the following thought: “By golly, someone ought to build a better tomato!” Byles was an auto mechanic at a shop that was conveniently located at the bottom of a steep incline that apparently vanquished more than one over-taxed trucking radiator. Luckily, one could just put ’er in neutral and roll right back into the healing hands of “Radiator Charlie” Byles, as he was known.

But radiator-fixing was not the only skill set acquired from Byles’ vast gamut of experience. Proudly claiming “I never been to school a day in my life,” Byles had been a cotton picker, a member of the National Guard, a pilot, a wrestler (or “wrassler” as it’s called in Appalachia), an auto mechanic, an inventor, and… an unconventional tomato breeder. Yes, Radiator Charlie decided to try something with tomatoes. He ingeniously positioned a tomato plant called the German Johnson in the middle of a circle of 10 other tomato plants—varieties chosen for their tendency to grow unusually large tomatoes. Using a tiny ear syringe, he then transferred pollen from the plants in the circle to the flowers of the German Johnson.

After seven years of collecting and planting the seeds from the resulting tomatoes, Radiator Charlie finally had grown a plant of which he could be proud. This varietal eventually became known as Radiator Charlie’s “Mortgage Lifter” because, dagnabbit, Radiator Charlie paid off his $6,000 mortgage in the thick of the Depression by selling these tomato seedling plants for a dollar a pop! The giant spheroid Mortgage Lifters, clocking in at one to four pounds, fed entire families of eight. Learn more about Radiator Charlie by listening to an archived show of the radio program Living on Earth, which includes a recording of Radiator Charlie himself!

As a part of EATLACMA, LACMA and artists’ collective Fallen Fruit are hosting a Tomato Hootenanny this Saturday, which will include tomato seedling adoptions. Artist Anne Hars has been growing Mortgage Lifters from seed in special pots made from the financial section of the newspaper to include in these adoptions. She and artist Stephanie Allespach will also be leading a tomato seedling workshop with several varietals of tomatoes (including the Mortgage Lifter). Download adoption forms here.

Mortgage Lifter seedlings in pressed pots made from newspapers, by Anne Hars

Sarah Bay Williams