There is a “history” behind everything, be it good, bad, or simply interesting. Unfortunately, too many things of historical significance fade away with time, just like human beings. Future generations therefore, oftentimes cannot relate to people and events that should be made a part of young folks’ knowledge of their local history.
It is almost unbelievable the number of people with Logan County roots who have gone on to make names for themselves in various fields, including sports, theater, Hollywood movies, television, science, politics, and just about every occupation imaginable — from the formation of universities, to working with NASA’s landing on the moon. Unfortunately, most Loganites, which is the word used to properly describe a person originally from Logan County, are mostly unaware of their predecessors’ exalted accomplishments.
For instance, as I begin today a series relating to the many unsung success stories of people from Logan County, I just wonder how many people can guess the subject of next week’s writing. You would think that a person who was the quarterbacks coach in three Super Bowls, including two in which his team won, and who even has a bronze bust of himself displayed at a famous ballpark where he was a star and where he set several records, would be someone most people in a county where the individual lived and graduated from high school would be easily identifiable. Unfortunately, that is not the case, not only with the gentleman, now 84, who I interviewed, but with a host of others. Tune in next week for a great story.
In the meantime, here is an account of an interesting gentleman from Logan who made quite a name for himself back in the 1940s. His name was Marshall Cletis Byles, better known as “Radiator Charlie.” There have been a few articles written about Byles, and even one old recorded interview done by his grandson many years ago. After Martha Sparks, now retired from The Logan Banner, brought this fellow to my attention several years back, I decided to do a little historical digging. It seemed nobody could remember him, or where he had lived. Here’s what I found:
Radiator Charlie came from the cotton fields of North Carolina, where he was forced to work as a very young child and did not receive a formal education. The jack-of-all-trades, as it turns out, managed to become an airplane pilot flying airmail routes and later was a member of the National Guard. While in the Guard, Charlie reportedly engaged in the sport of wrestling and enjoyed it so much he later went on wrestling tours throughout the Appalachian Mountains. He received a dollar for every minute he lasted in the ring, according to a recorded interview with his grandson, Ed Martin, a resident of Virginia. In the interview, Charlie said: “If he didn’t throw you in ten minutes, you got a dollar a minute. I lost, but very few times.”
It is likely that Charlie Byles decided to move to Logan after he visited on a wrestling tour, although there is no way to confirm this. In any event, he found business as an automobile mechanic and opened up his own little shop in Logan County where heavy coal and timber trucks were constantly encountering radiator problems because of the steep grades of county roads back in that time period. No doubt, this is how “Radiator Charlie” got his nickname. However, it is not for radiators that Charlie has left a legacy — it is, in fact, for a tomato plant, but not just any ole’ tomato plant.
For those of us who know anything about gardening, and especially raising tomatoes, we know the various types of tomatoes — from the large beefsteak to the grape-sized variety named “Tommy-Toes”. Some readers may recognize or have grown the tomato titled “The Mortgage Lifter.” This large variety produces tomatoes that weigh from two and one-half pounds to as much as four pounds each. It is from this variety of tomato that “Radiator Charlie” created and sold enough plants to pay off the mortgage on his home during the early 1940s. However, no one has ever been able to say just where that home was located — that is, until now. But first, here’s the tomato story.
Byles wanted to create a large “meaty” tomato that would be better utilized by families, most of whom had suffered through the Great Depression. He started by planting three beefsteak, three Italian tomatoes and three unknown of the English variety, all in a circle. In the center of the circle he planted a German Johnson plant, which is a tomato that has a purplish tint to it. With a baby syringe, good ‘ole “Radiator Charlie” reportedly cross-pollinated the German Johnson plant with pollen from the other nine tomatoes in the circle. He saved the seeds and planted them the following year using the same process and cross-pollinated the strongest plants each year. He did this process for six years until he had developed the tomato that met his post-Depression criteria.
The tomato became so popular that people were driving hundreds of miles to purchase the plants for a dollar each, which was quiet a sum to pay in the 1940’s. However, the plant, which grows six feet high and produces numerous large tomatoes, was and is still worth the price. The plants are disease resistant and produce pink-red tomatoes that are tasty but not acidic. They also have few seeds.
Two years ago, I bought two Mortgage Lifter plants from the Farmer’s Market in Charleston, mainly because I liked the name. At the time, I did not know of the connection to the former Logan County resident. However, I can attest to the fact that the plants become huge, as does the tasty tomato.
The plants may be available at some places in the area, but I can tell you you’re not likely to find them at Walmart. The plants have been passed down through families and friends, and there may even be area residents who have saved seeds from year to year. Most seed catalogs likely sell the seed. Any way it goes, now that it is the month of May, area gardeners can give Radiator Charlie’s tomatoes a try. If so, enjoy knowing they were created here in Logan County.
In the recorded interview with his grandfather, Ed Martin said he was sitting with him at 860 Lee Street. However, a check with 911’s Logan County addressing system reveals there is no such address, but there is a Lee Street located at Mitchell Heights. It is possible the interview was conducted in another county or state, but why he would mention the address, I cannot say. What I can tell you is that upon a deed search in the Logan County clerk’s office, the only property ever in the name of Marshall Cletis Byles was located at 82 High Street in the town of Logan. “Radiator Charlie” and his wife, Elizabeth, sold the property in 1952 to Marvin and Ida Morrison for $6,500.
We may never know the exact location of his radiator shop, but it is very likely that “Radiator Charlie” developed his “Mortgage Lifter” tomato somewhere on High Street near his home — the same home he paid for by selling his tomato plants.
Like I pointed out at the beginning of this story, there is history behind everything. By the way, the man lived to be 97 years old.