Seedsmen Hall of Fame
Honoring Horticulturalists

Charles Atwood 'Chuck' Wyatt
"A Grower of Vintage Tomatoes"

June 29, 2002 - by Fred N. Rasmussen, SUN STAFF

Charles Atwood "Chuck" Wyatt - a Rosedale resident who specialized in growing hard-to-get vintage tomatoes with such fanciful names as "Aunt Ruby's German Green," "Banana Legs," "Arkansas Traveler" and "Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter" - died of cardiac arrest Monday at Franklin Square Hospital Center. He was 66.

During the 1980s, Mr. Wyatt, who had retired from the Air Force and was working in sales for Ritz Camera, was trying to re-create the taste of the lusciously plump tomatoes he remembered from his childhood.

His grandfather, who had been the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Elkridge, was an accomplished gardener.

"He had enjoyed gardening and learned it from his grandfather," said his wife of 26 years, the former Joyce Ann Mee.

In 1983, while visiting Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson, he bought some "Crimson Cushion," an original beefsteak tomato, in the museum shop, and discovered that "old-fashioned flavor again," he told The Sun in a 1997 interview.  Mr. Wyatt was hooked.

He then discovered that there were other collectors of heirloom varieties of vintage tomatoes who swapped and sold seeds.

He decided to turn the 25- foot-by-50-foot back yard of his Rosedale townhouse into a full-time garden operation dedicated to growing vintage tomatoes whose heritage dated back fifty or more years.

With the help of several friends, he expanded his operation to Double Rock Park, a Baltimore County community garden in Parkville, and between the two garden plots, raised 120 varieties of tomatoes.

He saved their seeds, adding them to his collection of nearly 400 varieties that he sold and swapped to other tomato buffs and home gardeners through his company, Heirloom Tomatoes.

"Over 80 percent of the varieties available in 1910 are now extinct," he wrote in an introductory essay to Heirloom Tomatoes' Web site. "That's a horrible word, isn't it? Arguably, some of the best ones ever to be known to man have been lost forever."

His catalog of tomato seeds was accompanied by short descriptions and explanations for their names, size and color.

"Box Car Willie - This beautiful, perfectly globed med/large tomato was named after the King of the Hoboes and I can see him searching through 'mater patches until he found this crown jewel. A super 'mater and a great first heirloom for a novice," he wrote.

One of Mr. Wyatt's favorites was the "Greater Baltimore," of which he wrote, "Reportedly, an old-time canning variety in the Mid-Atlantic. I keep this because of its name."

Another was "Aunt Ruby's German Green," a beefsteak type that is a light green in color. "Excellent flavor and texture, good slicer, or for salads. THE OUTSTANDING GREEN VARIETY. If you have never tried a tomato that stays green when ripe, you should try this one, This is the biggest surprise I have ever experienced in tomatoes," Mr. Wyatt advised buyers.

He loved to tell visitors or customers the story behind the name of "Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter."  "It was developed by Charlie Byles of Logan, W.Va., in the 1930s," he told The Sun in 1997. "He had a radiator repair shop, but also sold tomato plants for the unheard of price of one dollar each. It was the sales from these plants that paid off his mortgage in six years."

Carolyn J. Male of Salem, N.Y., a retired microbiologist and author of 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden, said: "What Chuck contributed was making seeds and varieties available to people they ordinarily couldn't get. Taste is why you grow heirloom tomatoes and his prices were also very competitive and low."

Dr. Male described Mr. Wyatt as being, "generous beyond belief with both seeds and information."

Jack Schaeffer of Middle River, who shared Mr. Wyatt's passion for tomatoes and assisted him with the gardens, said, "He was a quiet man. A nice fellow who was one good guy."

He revealed Mr. Wyatt's method in growing tomatoes.

"He put a little 10-10-10 [fertilizer] around them as well as Epsom salts," Mr. Schaeffer said. "He put paper around the cages to keep down the weeds and never watered them. He let the Man Upstairs take care of that."

Despite suffering from macular degeneration in recent years, Mr. Wyatt struggled to keep his tomatoes growing, his Web site going and filling orders that came in from all over the world.

Mr. Wyatt was born in Baltimore and raised in Severna Park. He attended the Naval Academy, later leaving to serve as an Air Force navigator with the Strategic Air Command.

After leaving the Air Force, he owned a carpet-cleaning business in Florida before moving to Rosedale.

His first marriage ended in divorce.

Services were held Thursday.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Tracy Ann Winters of St. Petersburg, Fla.; a brother, Maurice A. "Woody" Wyatt of Baltimore; a stepson, Gary Robson of Dumont, N.J.; two stepdaughters, Carol Kerr of River Edge, N.J., and Patricia Bailey of Annandale, Va.; and five grandchildren.

Source:  The Baltimore Sun, June 29, 2002

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