Heirloom Tomatoes

Gary Millwood from Louisville, Kentucky is a grower and collector of heirloom tomatoes.  Here is another fascinating story of the origin of one of  his varieties.


My most recent heirloom tomato discovery.

Gary Millwood 2010

Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad ~ Historical heirloom carried through the Underground Railroad to Ripley, Ohio, from Kentucky –  tangy red fruits about 4 – 8 ounces, IND, 70+ DTM

Tomato seeds of this variety, first  called Aunt Lou’s , were carried by a black man as he traveled the Underground Railroad from Kentucky. We have provenance tracing this variety directly  to this man;  the tomato itself is characteristic of those grown in this era.

The black man  (unfortunately we don’t know his name)  came from Kentucky to Ripley, Ohio, where many slaves crossed the river to freedom.

Ripley is home to Rankin House, now a museum,  a well known stop in  the Underground Railroad.

This black man  grew these tomatoes there, sharing seeds with a woman named Lou, who later shared seeds with her great nephew, Francis Parker.

Francis Parker was consulted, on the need to add “Underground Railroad” to the “Aunt Lou’s” to signify  its history; he was pleased that others would be able to continue growing his  Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad tomato.

Francis Parker died December 2009 after an extended illness.

Sixty years later Francis, who lived in Sardinia, Ohio, shared seeds with Wilfred Ellis, owner of Ellis’ Feed Mill.

Wilfred is still alive, though quite elderly.

Wilfred shared them with Susan Barber, who gave them to me (Gary Millwood).

I always share my seed with my friend, Maria Stenger, in Sonora, Kentucky.

I am getting older, my health is not the best; she can carry on the work I have done with  these wonderful tomatoes.

Maria showed interest in growing my Kentucky Heirloom Tomatoes several years ago; she operates a small seed business on E-bay from her farm.

Maria is growing seeds of  Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange; my friend, Ira Wallace runs  the company.

Some weeks ago, I suggested Maria send several packets of our seed to Michelle Obama to be grown in the White House Garden, hoping to honor the memory of the folks who preserved this bit of history.

Maria just received an acknowledgment from the White House.  With our fingers crossed, we hope to hear from The First Lady  personally.
Note: I have added links for information only;  I am not connected with, nor am I being compensated by any linked company.

11 responses to this post.

  1. Good article Lane thanks for posting it. Gary had mentioned that tomato to me last fall when we met now I will have to get seed from Maria and try it next year. I alreday have my seed planted for this year. comprizing 100 varieties and over 10,000 plants that I hope to be ready for April plants sales. I have a website check it out, I have the varieties I am growing listed with pictures. The website is still under construction I have lots I need to add. Enjoyed the post on cronbread and guess what I am having for dinner, yep corn bread to go with a pot of pinto beans and ham. Rodger

    NOTE: Check out Rodger’s new website. You’ll learn a lot. It’s the answer to a newbie’s prayer for pictures and information. Lane Cockrell


  2. Lane, isn’t Gary one all-round terrific person? I am very grateful to have him as my friend and tomato mentor. So far there has not been a lot of interest in Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad. The word still needs to get out about it. You and Gary are doing your part! This tomato’s appeal is the history in it, as the plants and fruit themselves could stand some “improving.” It is definitely a very old variety, and exciting to have this kind of provenance.


    • Maria, when Gary responded to my request for a “few” tomato seeds I had no idea he was opening a whole interesting world for me. I have never had more than a passing interest in heirlooms, I guess, now am hooked. It is a privilege to be able to use my passion for blogging as an instrument to spread the word. BTW: I am impressed with your blog.


  3. Sure would like to have some good tomaters …


  4. Wow all I can say is that you are a great writer! Where can I contact you if I want to hire you?


  5. Thanks , I’ve just been looking for information about this subject for ages and yours is the best I’ve came upon so far. However, what concerning the conclusion? Are you certain about the source?


  6. […] only sad  harvesting story (heartbreaking, as far as Mama is concerned), has been Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad Tomato, which went from this and […]


  7. Sadly, Gary Millwood passed away several years ago.


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