By Rick Palsgrove
Tomatoes are not only tasty, they also played an important role in the history of Reynoldsburg.
According to the Ohio Historical Society, early tomatoes were not all that popular because they tended to be small, sour and a bit hard.
That changed in 1870 when Reynoldsburg’s Alexander Livingston developed the first commercial tomato, called the Paragon, which was larger and sweeter than existing tomatoes.
“The Paragon was developed after nearly 20 years of experimentation,” said Mark Myers of the Reynoldsburg-Truro Historical Society. “Livingston had no formal education in horticulture, he just learned by trial and error. He experimented with other vegetables too, like sweet corn and cabbage.”
Myers said Livingston developed tomatoes to meet different needs, making them smoother, different colors (such as purple and yellow), some more disease resistant, some able to grow in different climates and soils, some taking longer to ripen making them better able to be transported in the newly invented railroad refrigerator cars.
According to the book, “Alex Livingston: the Tomato Man and His Times,” he developed “17 major varieties of tomatoes.”
Myers noted that the Livingston Seed Company, which Alexander Livingston founded in 1850, is still in business in Columbus.
Livingston’s Reynoldsburg of 1870, “was a town of dirt roads, hitching posts, horses and buggies,” said Myers. “Most of the city land was farmed. On Saturday night the farmers all congregated ‘downtown,’ which would have been at the intersection of south Lancaster and Main. Some brought in goods to sell. Occasionally there was entertainment, like a traveling show that stopped by. Everyone had a good time.”
Livingston’s commercial tomato would contribute to what Reynoldsburg would become.
“It provided a lot of employment,” said Myers. “Livingston had five farms in the area and needed workers to prepare the seeds. Also, Reynoldsburg gained name recognition around the country for the tomato experimentation going on here. Over time, the ‘Birthplace of the Tomato’ slogan has been a great marketing tool.”
To celebrate the city’s tomato history, the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival was created.
“The idea for the festival was floated after the Franklin County Historical Society declared Reynoldsburg as the ‘Birthplace of the Tomato’ in October of 1965,” said Myers. “A group of local civic-minded citizens then formed an organization, ‘The Tomato Festival, Inc.,’ and held the first festival and it’s been going on, under different leadership groups, ever since.”
Myers said the early Tomato Festivals were “much less sophisticated than they are right now.” He said the festival was held in JFK Park behind the city building, moved to Huber Park, then Civic Park, and then back to Huber Park where it is located today.
For information on the history of the tomato in Reynoldsburg, visit the Reynoldsburg-Truro Historical Society website at rths.info or Reynoldsburgtomatofestival.org. The city website ci.reynoldsburg.oh.us has a page about Alexander Livingston. Cornelia Parkinson has written three books on Reynoldsburg history, including “Alex Livingston: The Tomato Man and His Times.”