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The Love-Apple Days
The Love-Apple Days

The Love-Apple Days

by Jeffery Goss of Hurley, MO

When Clovis Gold passed away not quite two years ago at the age of 93, he was perhaps the last of a vanished ilk: the tomato growers of Union City and Hurley, Missouri.

For half a century this industry was a mainstay of these communities in addition to many other towns. Although some Ozark settlers in antebellum times believed that tomatoes were poison, this notion was about gone by 1870. Perhaps the privations of the war, and the lawless days of Reconstruction, made people desperate enough to eat those “ornamental” fruits… and find them delicious!

Settlers clearing brushy or wooded land found that “love apples,” as they were called, could be planted among the stumps. They in fact helped prepare the soil for corn and sorghum crops. But what to do with all the juicy red fruits? They were perishable as all-get-out, and markets were far enough that they would spoil on the way.

The age-old Italian answer would be to dry them in the hot sun. But Stone County’s climate, especially in fall, is not quite suitable for that. Hence the next best thing, canning them.

In 1892, Lorenzo Gold built what was perhaps the first cannery in the county. The “mater factory,” as folks called it, was on the family farm on “God’s Road” (now Highway K) near Union City. One of the cannery buildings still stands, and is visible from the road if you know where to look. It is next to the Curbow / Watson farmhouse on the hill.

The bottomlands of Spring Creek, north and west of Hurley, went into tomatoes, as did some open prairie east of Mr. Golds’s cannery. Soon Hurley had its own cannery, and many boxes of love-apples from both places went to Springfield and Kansas City. But the person who played the biggest part in bringing tomato factories to the area was actually a Webster County man, Roy Nelson. In the year 1912 and the years following, his company rapidly contracted local canneries and found markets for the product. He realized the importance of tomatoes to the local economy and intentionally set up his cannery contracts in small towns, hoping to help the economies of the villages where his growers lived.

Thousands of rural Ozarkers found seasonal employment at the canneries, the majority of them women, though in some towns quite a few men worked there too. Crane, Elsey, Galena, and Reeds Spring had canneries; a second Union City cannery was built but it was actually closer to Browns Spring. Some tomato factories were complete with whistles, like the factories in some cities have, to call the employees to work. But unlike manufacturing plants in the cities at the time, the tomato canneries suffered no strikes. Steady paid jobs were few and appreciated by rural folk, and besides, the canneries were owned not by distant tycoons but by relatives and neighbors of the workers they employed. A few of the canneries were a sort of co-op, owned jointly by the families that raised the fragile fruit.

Of course, there was just as much work to be done in the field as in the factory. Thousands of plants had to be started in spring, transplanted, suckered, and harvested. In the early years many of the farmers raised “Marglobe” tomatoes, a determinate variety (meaning they bear fruit all at once). Later on a variety called “Millionaire” was released by a Dr. Melton of Marshfield; it was a semi-determinate, meaning they ripen over a longer period of time (making harvest less overwhelming) but the plants stay short.

Suckering, the removal of side-shoots, was a tedious job. Being a chore of early summer, it was customarily the work of teen-aged apprentices. Most cannery growers wanted their vines pruned to the two-stem model, meaning there would be less individual fruits, but the tomatoes would be bigger and therefore take less time to pick. A serious consideration when you have 6,000 plants and are paying your help by the hour to pick them.

In 1910, the harvest was abundant but farmers had not arranged for outlets to sell that many tomatoes before they spoilt. Legend has it that the James River “ran red” that summer, from growers dumping maggot-infested fruit in the water. Fortunately, that problem did not last long. Roy Nelson and others found outlets for all the love-apples they could can, and they leveraged the vast St. Louis market: Italian immigrants who hankered for tomatoes, which were difficult to find fresh in the city. In time, Stone County became famous as far away as St. Louis for the quality of its tomatoes. The cleared parts of hills around Hurley, not good for growing much else, were actually said to yield the best-tasting tomato crop of all.

In some places the roads were so rough that getting the love-apples to the canning factory was challenging enough. To that end the wagon shops built special tomato wagons, with bouncing springs to absorb the shock of the ride and allow the fruit to reach market or cannery intact.

In the 1940s, many of the canneries had to shut their doors for various reasons. Perhaps the biggest factor, ironically, was that improved railroad transportation — including refrigerator cars — made fresh tomatoes available in many grocery stores, so consumers were less apt to settle for canned. Also, the Second World War opened up other jobs for women, jobs which were better paying than skinning and packing tomatoes. Moreover, as young people left the countryside and a smaller number of landowners were left with large acreages, dairy became the trend of the hour. Indeed, dairy cows remained the biggest agricultural activity in Stone County until just a few years ago.

The Reeds Spring cannery held out until 1968, when its doors finally closed for good. Today there is only one business that cans tomatoes in the county: Papa Verde Salsa Company, which sells salsa made from their own tomatoes to several stores in southwest Missouri. Like Lorenzo Gold, you have to start somewhere.