JACKSONVILLE, Texas — "Tomatoville" is the place to be this week. That's what they're calling Jacksonville while the city celebrates its tomato heritage.
From the Tomato Bowl to hundreds of concrete tomatoes all over Jacksonville — it's clear the city is proud of its roots.
Tomato Fest is "Totally East Texas," but you can't have tomatoes without the growers.
For some people, tomatoes are a family tradition.
David Claiborne jokes about his reluctant start growing these world famous veggies or are they a fruit? Well, that's a debate for another time.
"Well, I guess I got started when I was a youngster, okay, against my will in the garden, okay with my mom and my dad. And I'm the oldest of three boys and, and we actually thought that they didn't like us very much, because they took us out in the garden and into tomato patch when we were youngsters and made us work," said Claiborne.
After high school, Claiborne took a break from tomatoes, but the garden drew him back.
"Actually, tomato business, you know, growing, the business itself since '89," said Claiborne.
He now owns and operates the Tomato Shed in Jacksonville with his son Austin.
"So, it's been a lifelong endeavor for us," Claiborne explained. "Of course, when I began to meet the public, the public loves these tomatoes, okay. And of course, that's become our motivation to grow tomatoes. You know, I mean, it's grown into what it is now, to try to keep this tomato deal here around Jacksonville."
Tomatoes became an important cash crop for the city way... way back.
"It started in 1898. The first boxcar of tomatoes shipped from this area." said Claiborne. "You know, it was just a great cash crop in the early 1900s and on up through, you know, the 50s before that began to kind of go away. But Jacksonville was actually deemed at that time, to be the tomato producing capital of the entire country."
Claiborne says the culture of producing tomatoes has changed so states like California and Florida now outpace Texas when it comes to sheer numbers, but that Jacksonville, home-grown taste, it's something special, but what makes them so delicious?
"It's so East Texas. Some say the red dirt, but I think the sand in the area is really conducive to growing up good quality tomato," explained Claiborne. "Even to this day, when we carry tomatoes to the market, we have a competition from other areas that people buy the tomatoes and they still say that they think the Jacksonville tomato is better."
And for the most part, our warm weather is ripe for growing tomatoes.
"We've had a cooler spring and a lot of rain, but we're just beginning to get into the crop and believe it or not, with all the weather the adverse conditions we've had, the crop looks really well for this season. So within about a week there'll be plenty of tomatoes," said Claiborne.
So, from now until the end of August, you'll be able to find Jacksonville's pride in grocery stores and of course, their arrival timed perfectly for Tomato Fest.
"This festival brings a lot of families together. It's almost like a homecoming for families to come in, for visitors to maybe see Jacksonville for the first time. And it's a great showcase for our community," said Peggy Renfro, President of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.
Plus, who wouldn't want to see a tomato peeling contest — with your teeth, a tomato packing contest, best home grown tomato contest and celebrity tomato eating contest.
"County Judge Chris Davis, who won the contest, had been trying for 11 years to win and he's out to win it for his second year," said Renfro.
Speaking of eating a tomato — what's the best way to do that? We had to ask the expert!
"When we sat down for supper/dinner in the evening, there would be a plate full of sliced tomatoes and the kids would come, everybody would grab tomatoes with their fork, you know, and we'd salt pepper those," Claiborne said.
But if that's not your thing...
"I would say the best way for a homegrown Jacksonville tomato is on a ham sandwich or a BLT," said Claiborne.
Isn't that just Totally East Texas?
You can surround yourself by everything tomato Saturday, June 12 in Jacksonville. The fest kicks off bright and early at 8 a.m. So many fun events are going on — like an arts and crafts show, food vendors, farmer's market, motorcycle show and a salsa contest.