Heirloom Tomatoes Are A Treasure

When I posted to a gardening forum asking about  a few unusual tomato seeds to grow next year, Gary Millwood from Louisville, Kentucky contacted me.  He is a grower and collector of heirloom tomatoes.  (Gary passed away in 2013.)

He sent his story with  the correspondence and has graciously given me permission to use it.   Too bad there are no pictures to show of these treasures.  I have added links to sources for some of these tomatoes, for information only;  I am not connected with, nor am I being compensated for inserting these links.


Growing up in town as a child, I had limited exposure to growing things other than a few flower plants my mother grew and some purchased tomato seedlings my father grew. As children we helped with the watering and care of the plants.

In days gone by, growing vegetables and seed saving became a tradition or better still a necessity. These seed provided hope and prosperity for farm families.   My grandpa, Edgar Cartee, was a tenant farmer in South Carolina and in my early years I spent some weeks in the summer visiting and enjoying the country life and helping as I was capable.   One thing for sure is that I was soaking in all those summer time experiences.  I never realized how much influence his love of the land and his knowledge would follow me to adulthood.   I owe so much to him and my grandma, Essie, for having the patience to tolerate a growing city boy who always had so many questions.

My life’s work has been devoted to serving the church.  With the exception of six years and a few months working as Director of Education for a church in Greenville, South Carolina, I have served in administrative capacity in three children’s homes in three states.

In  1978 I returned to the Bellewood Presbyterian Home for Children (bellewood.org),  Anchorage, Kentucky where I had worked some years before.   Aside from the responsibilities of supervising staff  and children,  I was responsible for the farm, 200 head of beef cattle,  pastures, hay fields, garden, buildings and grounds.

The garden served as a major source for fresh vegetables for summer meals.  This was the time I began using methods I had observed from my grandpa. Like all gardeners I had to deal with the seasons, weather, some trial and error, and accepting good advice when it was given.  I learned the varieties which produced and did well for us.   The County Extension folks were very helpful to me during this time.

The importance of the farm operation transitioned when the director we had retired and with the arrival of a new director. We initiated new programs which focused more on   services to children and families.  We continued with a small garden to provide   for summer experiences for children who enjoyed the activity and I was involved as much as possible.

When I began having serious health problems I renewed my interest  in gardening because of the therapeutic value.  In the early ’90s I had to undergo angioplasty and in 1995 I had a heart attack and had a triple by-pass. My recovery was remarkable and I was back to work early.  Four years later I had a second heart attack and had a second triple by-pass; my recovery was long and difficult and I had to retire from my work.

The winter of 2000 I decided I would limit my gardening to growing mostly heirloom tomatoes. Not too long after this I attended the funeral of a dear friend who had grown up in Eastern Kentucky.   There I met Jerry Cantrell, the new director at Bellewood Home. He had heard that I was interested in growing tomatoes and mentioned that his Mama, Lettie, of West Liberty, Kentucky,  had a tomato that I might enjoy growing.   She sent me seed and I loved it so much I have been growing it ever since; I have shared seed with folks around the world. Lettie died in 2005 at the age of 96;   “Granny Cantrell’s German tomato is the only tomato she ever grew.  Baker Creek and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange list it in their 2007 catalog.

Byron Crawford was visiting my friend, Nancy Theiss at the Oldham County Historical Center where I volunteer growing some old plant varieties including heirloom tomatoes. This interested him so he called me and did a news article for the Louisville Courier Journal on my interest in old tomato varieties.  Julie Maruskin of Winchester read the article and contacted me about her Coy family, Depp’s Pink Firefly tomato.  This tomato is from Glasgow, KY area from 1890s.  It is one of the most beautiful tomatoes I have ever grown and it reminds me of a large Christmas ornament. Underwood Gardens lists it in their catalog now.

I am a member of several gardening sites.  I correspond with several serious tomato growers.   Doug Zucknic in Romney, WV is one of those.   When he was searching for several seed varieties, I was able to find them for him.  Last year he sent me seed for Purple Dog Creek heirloom tomato. He acquired the seed from a gentleman who had visited Kentucky with a church group when they were on a mission trip to repair housing for the elderly.   The host church provided a covered dish dinner on their last evening there.  Members brought their favorite dishes and one member brought his wonderful Purple Dog Creek tomatoes!   Seed were shared and Doug sent me a few last year and they failed to germinate.  I am treating my seed with care this year in hopes of growing this tomato; I hope I will be able to share seed with the AHSC group in the fall.

One of three Ashlock brothers who served George Washington during the Revolutionary War settled in Kentucky. Carl Ashlock, now of Franklin, North Carolina, is descended from that patriot. Carl and his father and grandfather farmed in Kentucky, however, where they grew a large pink tomato variety, the seed of which, Carl shared with me and others.  He said that he hoped that others in Kentucky would be interested in growing and saving his Grandfather Ashlock family heirloom.

Last summer I tasted the Unknown Kentucky Heirloom aka Kentucky Pink Stamper at our CHOPTAG (Cincinnati Heirloom Open Pollinated Tomato Associate Growers) Both Earl Cadenhead and Carolyn Male shared a few seed with me. I  learned later that Mary Klacson of Eugene, OR had received a tomato called Unknown Kentucky Heirloom from  James A. Stamper who resides in Dwarf, KY.   He said his family had been growing this variety and a   Kentucky White Pole Bean for as long as he could remember. Since the tomato had no name, Mary named it Kentucky Pink Stamper for the Stamper family.

My friend, Al Anderson, Troy Ohio and I have been sharing our favorite heirloom tomatoes the last several years.   He and several of his friends grew better than 350 varieties   in 2006.  His friend John Siegel has been growing Kentucky Wonder Tomato for years and another called Kentucky Striped.  I have seed of these two and will be growing them this season.

While visiting Berea this past winter, I met Sharon Patton who grew up in Jennings Hollow near Monticello in Wayne County, Kentucky.  Our conversation centered on gardening; she said they grew lots of vegetables.  So, I asked what tomatoes they grew. She couldn’t wait to tell me about her family and grandmother. She said they had an all time favorite her grandmother grew which came from her grandmother’s grandmother who immigrated from Ireland.   It has not had a name so I think we are going to call it Lizzie’s Irish Eyes!  Sharon has been ill but is sending me seed once she is better; I hope to grow it this summer.

Seed Saver, Gary Perkins, Wayland, KY, who many of you know (Gary was one of the three AHSC  founders) grows and shares many of his seed with SSE members.   Gary has shared a number of his heirloom tomato varieties with me.   I especially enjoyed the Lenny and Gracie’s Yellow and the Black Mountain Pink varieties.  I grew them this past season and they produced wonderfully for me. See description below.   

Black Mountain Pink: Round, pink fruit is 1 lb. or more, with very good flavor. : Black Mountain Pink was originally collected, and named by, Austin Isaacs, of Richmond, Kentucky. It dates to a Mr. Harrison, who discovered them growing at an abandoned homestead in 1933. Indeterminate. Seed available from Marianna’s Heirloom Seeds.

Lenny & Gracie’s Ky. Heirloom (Yellow): Large, yellow, ribbed fruit
with a pink/red blush and a juicy, fruity flavor. From the Johnson/Magoffin County
area of eastern Kentucky.
Lenny & Gracies Kentucky Heirloom was originally collected and named by Roger Wright of Hamilton, OH. There is a red version as well. Indeterminate.

What I think is important as I consider each individual story of these tomato varieties is that someone thought they had some good qualities and made attempts to save seed.   Many were shared with family, friends and others. Each time I discover a variety like one of these, it is like discovering a “lost” treasure.  The growing and the tasting provides experiences others have encountered over the years. For me it reminds me of blissful summers and cold winters when soups and sauces warmed the heart bringing back memories of boyhood days long ago.


6 responses to this post.

  1. […] jumped the gun; started  9 varieties of heirloom tomatoes early February.   They are up and going; along with some heirloom pepper.   Only have room for 2 […]


  2. […] meet   Gary.     This guy may not have started a club, but he is one heck of a promoter of the […]


  3. Posted by James A. Stamper on January 28, 2013 at 3:08 am

    Quite by accident I am the origin of the Kentucky Stamper Pink Tomato. When I sent some seeds to the lady in Oregon, I had no idea they would become so popular. Now I see the seeds offered from many sources. I feel honored and proud to have contributed something. This tomato is still the main variety we grow here. We add only one or two early varieties to get some earlier tomatoes.
    James A. Stamper
    P.O. Box 495
    Dwarf, KY 41739


  4. […] give the plants the attention they needed.   My reward was a crop of beautiful tomatoes;  with the heirloom tomatoes I finally tasted tomatoes like I remember tomatoes tasting. […]


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