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Black From Tula and The Mortgage Lifter, Part I

By Tom Poland
web posted August 14, 2015

LIFE DOWN SOUTH – Robert Clark and I were on the road running down, a story about land, a farmhouse, and tomatoes, a story of war, old ways, and survivors. On a hot, humid July morning we abandoned I-20 for Longs Pond Road and after a back road or two arrived at a farmhouse near the Boiling Springs community.

Two huge blackjack oaks stood out front. Out back a handsome, clapboard smokehouse looked lonely, its fellow outbuildings long gone. “We tore down the old cow barn in the summer of 2007,” said Derrick Gunter, the owner of this sandy and historic acreage.

Derrick grows heirloom tomatoes here in ancient sea bottom sands and he knows his history. Those trees of the Old South, blackjack oaks, never get much size to them, but these did. Derrick believes they may be the oldest blackjacks in the country. About thirty yards past the blackjacks’ shadows, a low spot runs along Derrick’s property line on across Caulks Ferry Road. The blackjacks were standing when Sherman and his boys came through on the way to Columbia. Right near those trees Sherman and his troops bogged down in a quagmire. The Union troops offloaded cannon balls and minnie [Minié] balls to lighten their load and better get through the morass. Derrick’s grandfather found a cannon ball and “a shoe box full of minnie balls” alongside the road, a story that tells you how much better supplied the North was than the South.

When housing construction exploded after World War II the vast majority of homes were built of brick. The 1951 farmhouse with its German siding is probably the last true farmhouse built in South Carolina. Derrick’s dad bought the farmhouse nine years ago. Derrick began to work on the old home, whose interior sports handsome cypress tongue-and-groove paneling and real hardwood floors. The main room’s lacquer caramelized when creosote in the chimney blazed up, roaring like a train barreling down the track.

The folks who owned the farmhouse came up through the Depression. “They didn’t throw anything way,” said Derrick. “I threw away 3,000 ties that wrapped loaves of bread.” Derrick and his dad had to make seven trips hauling off 2,000 to 3,000 Duke Mayonnaise and peanut butter jars. They found a 1920 receipt from Georgia for the pecan trees growing out back, $6.50 per tree. My granddad grew up in the Depression and didn’t throw anything away. “Keep something seven years, and you’ll find a new use for it,” he said more than once.

Derrick’s dad gifted him some land and that led to a decision of sorts. Derrick teaches U.S. History at a high school in Lexington County. He has his summers free. His mom said, “You’ve got all that time off in the summer, why don’t you clear the land and grow peanuts?”

He cleared it. The land was a jungle said Derrick.

Then his dad passed along some sage advice. “Don’t grow peanuts. It’s a lot of work and will drive you crazy. Grow tomatoes,” he said remembering a Russian heirloom tomato a neighbor up the road had brought them. Derrick knew the tomato he is dad was referring to. He had made a sandwich from it. “Best tomato I’ve ever eaten.”
That Russian heirloom? It’s called a “Black From Tula.” It’s a big “black” tomato with 3- to 4-inch, slightly flattened, oblate, dark brown to purple fruit. It has deep green shoulders. Its flavor is heavenly, rich, slightly salty, with a smoky-fruit flavor. Another popular heirloom is the Marion, developed by the Clemson Extension Service in 1963. “Old timers love it,” said Derrick.
Derrick started out with twenty plants, doing a test run with eight varieties. Four failed but four did well. Today, Derrick grows mainline varieties with names as colorful as they are. Cherokee Purple, Black Krim (Crimean), German Johnson, a pink tomato, and perhaps the most colorful name of all, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.
“Radiator Charlie,” said Derrick, “owned land. That was the only thing he had. He had ethics and common sense but no education. He had will power and made a success of himself.”

Editor’s Note: In Part II, we learn what an heirloom tomato is and how they’re grown.

Derrick Gunter’s Tomato Sandwich Recipe
White Sunbeam Bread
Duke’s Mayonnaise only
Any fully ripe pink or black or mixture heirloom tomato
Salt & Pepper
Dry Beef

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