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March, 2004
Reynoldsburg, Ohio
 

     When traveling on I-70, just east of Columbus, we encounter two exits for Reynoldsburg, a community just to the north of the interstate. Reynoldsburg is an old town, laid out in 1815. It was a stagecoach stop for travelers along the  National Road and then a resting place for early auto travelers on US 40.  Today, it is a suburb of Columbus, providing homes and a community for those who work in the greater Columbus area.   

    But Reynoldsburg has a claim to fame that distinguishes it from other communities that might look pretty much the same. That claim? Well, Reynoldsburg claims to be the birthplace of the tomato: in the year 1870, to be exact. The midwife was a self-taught horticulturalist named Alexander W. Livingston.  

    This is a rather lofty claim, considering that tomatoes were domesticated by the Aztecs and entered the Spanish and Italian diets during the 17th century, despite the suspicion that they might be poisonous. Tomatoes were produced and eaten almost from the beginning of the American republic, particularly in the south and what is now the Midwest.  So what’s this about tomatoes being born—or invented—in Reynoldsburg in 1870? 

    The answer is that the pre-1870 tomato and the post-1870 tomato were quite different. Early tomatoes were smaller than those we know today, they were often hollow and hard with ribbed skins, and the appearance, flavor, and storage qualities varied considerably from plant to plant. Alexander Livingston owned a farm near Reynoldsburg where he established the A. W. Livingston Buckeye Seed Company and conducted experiments to produce tomatoes with better flavor and more uniform characteristics. He worked for decades on the project and finally, in 1870, produced a variety which met his goals. He called this tomato the Paragon. The Paragon Tomato is recognized as the first commercial tomato. That is, farmers could plant it with confidence of a crop with a yield of sufficient quantity and quality to make it commercially viable—the tomatoes could be canned or made into juice and offered to consumers far beyond the location of the farm. 

    In Reynoldsburg, A. W. Livingston continued his experimentation with tomatoes and produced many varieties that were widely grown. In the late 1930s, a U.S. Department of Agriculture publication stated that more than half of the tomato varieties in use then were descended from strains developed in Reynoldsburg by Alexander Livingston. His Paragon Tomato—the beginning of it all—can still be purchased and grown today. 

    Tomatoes are a big deal in Reynoldsburg and in Ohio. Ohio ranks third in the nation in production of tomatoes for processing, and tomato juice is the official state beverage. Each September Reynoldsburg holds a Tomato Festival where there are events and contests and parades, and everybody gets free tomato juice. 

    One more note: Alexander W. Livingston was not a trained horticulturist. He never went to college; he barely went to school at all. He was raised on a farm in what was then frontier Ohio and had no credentials to do what he was doing, other than the credentials earned by getting results. In that he joins that ranks of innovators, such as, fellow Ohioans Thomas Edison and Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were self-taught tinkers—driven by the passion to discover, to create—who in the process changed all of our lives.

For more about Reynoldsburg and its surrounding communities, see CD for I-70 East: Columbus, OH to Wheeling, WV  


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