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Best-tasting, biggest probable categories in 2-city competition in Jacksonville

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(Tyler Morning Telegraph)--Tomatoes are more than food in two interstate communities — they're an integral part of the town's heritage and a reason for residents to celebrate.

In Jacksonville, formerly known as the Tomato Capital of the World, concrete tomatoes are displayed in front of homes and businesses, and people gather downtown the second Saturday in June for the annual Tomato Fest. The event includes various vendors and contests such as Tomato Eating and Tomato Peeling.

The picture is similar in Crystal Springs, Miss., known as the Tomatopolis of the World from 1875 to 1945. It also has a Tomato Festival, held the last Saturday in June, where there have been contests such as oddest shaped tomato. Tomato figures also adorn the mayor's office.

Now that the towns know they share these tomato connections, they plan to see which one has the best-tasting tomato and possibly the largest.

An exact date for the competition hasn't been finalized. However, the towns expect to have it at the end of May, before their respective festivals.

Crystal Springs Mayor Sally Garland said they plan to have the contest in a neutral place, maybe Shreveport, La.

She said they will have someone do a blind taste test, and the judge could be an official or media personality from wherever the competition takes place.

The idea for the competition initially came about after a woman on the Crystal Springs Beautification Committee contacted the Jacksonville chamber about the town's concrete tomatoes, said Peggy Renfro, president of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

She said that reminded her that there was something in the history books about a tomato association between the towns.

According to the book "The Hills of Cherokee," the Cherokee County tomato industry shares a link to peaches as well as Mississippi.

"Shipments of peaches brought American Refrigeration Transit Co. officials to Jacksonville," the book reads. "Finding soil and climate similar to that of Crystal Springs, Miss., the tomato center with which they were familiar, they urged Jacksonville farmers to capitalize their experience in peach shipping and enter the tomato business."

The book goes on to state that two brothers-in-law became acquainted with an ex-Mississippian, who grew tomatoes for shipment. The two men were "amazed by his season's returns in 1896 (and were) determined to sell the tomato idea to their home-folks," according to the book.

Years passed, and in 1917, Jacksonville is described as "the center of a circle with an 8-mile radius producing 90 percent of all the tomatoes shipped from Texas."

In addition to this history, Ms. Renfro said she saw that Crystal Springs had a Tomato Festival as well and started making some contacts.

Both towns eventually agreed on a competition. And although details haven't been ironed out, they are already touting their produce.

"I have full confidence we're going to end up wining that one," Mayor Garland said.

"We've got people who say our tomatoes are the best. There's nothing to compare. You can tell when it's time for our tomatoes to come in."

In Jacksonville, Ms. Renfro said she believes the tomatoes are good because of rich soil in the area.

"We don't think it's going to be any competition, but we're going to see," she said.

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