HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Dean Williams can no longer park his Subaru Outback in his garage. He turned this room in his Huntington, West Virginia home into a makeshift tomato nursery.
Dozens of baby tomato plants stick out of plastic pots filled with Pro-Mix starter soil. These pots are on a table made of plywood and sawhorses. Growing lights float directly above the plants, dangling from chains that reach up to the ceiling.
Although Williams has gardened for years, this is the first time he’s tried to grow anything from seeds.
“It worried me because I started them and they say they should germinate within five and 12 days,” Williams said. “Well, day 12 came and nothing had come up.”
This disappointed Williams because these are not just regular tomatoes. They are Estler Mortgage Lifters, a tomato that was developed by Williams’ father-in-law William Estler of Barboursville in the 1920s.
The plants are not to be confused with “Radiator Charlie” Mortgage Lifter tomatoes, which are popular at farmers’ markets and in seed catalogs. These mortgage lifters are better known, but the mortgage lifters in Dean Williams’ garage debuted a decade earlier than the Radiator Charlie variety.
William Estler created his tomato by crossing Ponderosa and Pritchard tomatoes, resulting in a pink and sweet fruit. He grew the plants for years until his death in 1968. His son, Bob Estler, then spent the rest of his life growing the plants and raising awareness of his father’s tomato.
When Bob Estler passed away in 2012, Dean Williams – Bob’s son-in-law – made himself the keeper of the family tomato tradition.
He was given seeds that his mother-in-law, Mary Lou, kept from Bob Estler’s last tomatoes. That’s why he was so disappointed when it didn’t look like the plants were sprouting.
But then came day 13. Just as Williams thought all hope was gone, seven plants sprout from the ground.
“I was 20 by that night,” said Williams. “And the next day I was 45. And it kept exploding for the next three to four days.”
Williams eventually found himself with 185 tomato plants. But only a dozen are destined for his own garden. He delivers the rest to local greenhouses – Hatcher’s greenhouse in South Point, Ohio, and Joyce’s greenhouse in Huntington – so local gardeners can grow Estler mortgage lifters in their own backyards.
This, too, is a continuation of a long family tradition. Both greenhouses used to raise mortgage lenders for Bob Estler.
“It is my wife’s legacy. Her family’s legacy, ”said Williams. “I would like to see that this has some roots behind it and that other people find interest and want it to move forward too.”
Williams doesn’t charge the greenhouses for the plants – just like his father-in-law Bob didn’t charge for the bushels and bushels of tomatoes and Mortgage Lifter seeds he’s given away over the years.
“I see it that way,” said Williams. “I think Bob is watching over me a bit. Without him, I don’t think I would be that successful. “