Saturday, August 12, 2017

Off the Shelf:
Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen

Every now and then, I have to deviate from my intentions to plow through my backlog of reading. This is one of those months. Rather than pull a book down from my own bookcases, I borrowed one from the library.

This month's selection is a book I've been meaning to read for quite some time. It is not, however, a book about genealogy, but a chance to learn something more about a giant in my own city's history.

Because it involves my city, not yours, you might not think this applicable to you. But don't give up so quickly with that assessment. It turns out Tillie Lewis built a business which introduced the Italian pomodoro tomato to the agriculture of our Central Valley region. In the face of steep tariffs making imports of the Italian tomato impractical, this eventually made our county the top tomato producing county in the United States by 1940.

Following that introduction of the pomodoro to the area's agriculture, this businesswoman coupled that endeavor with development of a cannery in the city. By 1950, Tillie Lewis had grown that company to be the fifth largest canning business in the United States. If your mother made you anything with canned tomato products back then, you may have eaten an Italian dish made from tomatoes grown in my county.

I can't tell you how many times, over the years, I've driven by the old cannery bearing the Tillie Lewis name, but I had never given any thought to the business savvy that went into building that tomato empire—not to mention, any thought to what it took for a woman to make those strides in a generation in which board rooms were solely the domain of gray-suited businessmen.

While I don't have any ancestors to research in the city or county in which I now live, it certainly helps to delve into the history surrounding the home of my local genealogical society. Not only that, but it's informative and inspiring to see how another woman tackled the business challenges of her day. Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen is definitely a read I've been looking forward to.


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