If you added together the weights of all the apples, bananas, grapes, and oranges the world eats in one year, it wouldn’t come close to the weight of all the tomatoes we consume. Billions of tons of tomatoes are grown each year. In fact, the tomato is the world’s most popular fruit.*
In homage to the tomato, Crystal Springs, Mississippi (population 5,939 ) hosts a lively Tomato Festival every year that climaxes on the last Saturday in June. Located just south of Jackson, MS on I-55, the town is easy to find and convenient to visit. There are other small-town tomato festivals in the South: the Avery Tomato Festival in Avery, Texas (population 462), the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival in Warren, Arkansas (population 8,143), and the Grainger County Tomato Festival in Rutledge, Tennessee (population 1,270)—to name but a few.
But it was the Mississippi festival’s Tomato Museum that especially intrigued us. We wondered what kind of displays a tomato museum would contain and what a visitor could learn from them. So we traveled to Crystal Springs on this year’s festival weekend to investigate.
The Tomato Museum is located within the visitor center of the town’s idyllic, 74-acre Chautauqua Park, a recreation area that includes the 34-acre Lake Chautauqua. This human-made lake was constructed by the Illinois Central Railroad as a reservoir to supply water to steam locomotives that stopped in Crystal Springs. This site was selected by the railroad because Crystal Springs was the highest elevation point on the rail line between Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Thus, it was an optimal place along this north-south route for the massive engines to take on water. The whole town moved to this site (several miles east of its founding) in 1858, recognizing that it would be to their advantage to be located on the new railroad line. As a result, so many tomatoes were shipped nation-wide from Crystal Springs that the town became known as the “Tomatopolis of the World.”
The town continued to be a major produce center until after World War II, when the rise of trucking and the decline in produce farming caused a precipitous drop in produce shipping. Tomatopolis was no more. Few of today’s youth recall the town’s glory days, but the local festival (as well as the Tomato Museum) serves to revisit its proud horticultural history and educate new generations about their tomato “roots.”
Crystal Springs tomatoes were red varieties, marketed under such labels as Crystal’s Pride, Blue Flag, Magnolia, Red Robin, Mississippi Special, and Mrs. Sippy.
Inside the Tomato Museum—free and open year-round, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.—neatly arranged objects and media have been mounted on the walls and positioned on the perimeter flooring of one very large room, a bright and cheerful gallery with abundant natural lighting. The museum’s collection consists mainly of historical documents, tomato-growing tools, machinery, and tomato consumer ware–plus past tomato-festival memorabilia. Labels are mainly descriptive, rather than explanatory.
There is no brief introductory video, printed museum guide, or wall-mounted timeline to help the visitor understand Tomatopolis, nor is the collection itself segmented into distinct exhibits for learning purposes. The careful visitor does gain a fragmentary sense of what tomato farming was like during the town’s heyday by looking over the large and continuous display. However, the Tomato Museum is not currently designed systematically to educate the visitor by answering the basic questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how. Nor does it move logically from general to specific as the visitor circumnavigates the room’s perimeter from left to right.
There is little information about the tomato plant, the local soils and climate, the tomato production cycle, or the railroad. What was it like for a child who worked in the fields of Tomatopolis? The displays don’t say. One also wishes there were bold, life-sized images of people or historically garbed museum manikins representing some of the people who made Tomatopolis thrive. One departs without any striking and memorable stories to remember and to tell others.
This is not unusual. We’ve found similar omissions at the vast majority of small-town science-related museums we visit. We praise the Tomato Museum’s historical intentions, as well as the fact that it has been successfully launched and beautifully sited. To be fair, unless any new museum receives professional advice and ample funding for exhibit design, it often takes many years for a museum to mature and realize its founders’ vision. Also, other “tomato towns” and festivals have no tomato museums at all, and this one charges no fee.
To date, the world’s best known museum of this kind is on the Channel Island of Guernsey—a UK crown dependency. As if to illustrate that tomato museums really can be fascinating for children and do improve over time, Laura Solon (Times Online, 2008) writes: “I don’t think I will ever be able to dissociate holidays entirely from the Tomato Museum in Guernsey. We had many family holidays to the island, which if you are aged between four and 12 is amazing. It’s quiet, the beaches are beautiful, the days mostly long and sunny, and when it rains, there is always the Tomato Museum. Tomato-growing is one of the island’s main industries, and I can’t count how many times I must have been to see exhibitions, complete with recreations of 1950s packing sheds and numerous tomato artifacts. By the time I was a teenager, the Tomato Museum had become a bit more hands-on and offered diversions such as tomato-grading.”
Small towns in the U.S. South, such as Crystal Springs, MS, continue to accomplish a lot civically—albeit with minimal funding, lots of volunteer effort, and modest donations. We are grateful for the opportunity to visit the Tomato Museum during its initial development.
*But the tomato is a vegetable, isn’t it? To a botanist, a tomato is a particular kind of ripened plant ovary, called a berry, and thus it’s a fruit. However, dieticians classify a tomato, nutritionally, as a vegetable. Why? Because, among other reasons, it isn’t sweet and is never served for dessert. There really is no contradiction in a plant organ being a fruit, botanically, while being considered a vegetable, nutritionally. “Vegetable” is only a culinary term—not a scientific one.
James H. Wandersee is biologist and education professor at Louisiana State University. Renee M. Clary is a geologist and educator at Mississippi State U. Their EarthScholars Research Group works to improve science education in schools and other venues, like these small museums.