Looking at the modern day Branson, with all the glitz and glamour, it’s hard to imagine the hard times early settlers of the Ozarks had the early part of the century. Before the lake condos, theaters, and golf courses in Branson, there were hills, hollows and very little industry. You can tell by looking around that farming posed a bit of a problem. Yet, there was a crop that was for many of the hill folks their only means of acquiring a little cash. Often referred to as the Red Gold of the Ozarks, we are talking about the familiar tomato.
The rough Ozark ground, once the trees were removed, proved to be just what the tomato needed. During the winter you’d take an ax, cut a circle around a tree causing it to die. In the spring, you’d cut the tree into needed firewood. Stumps were usually not removed. The ground was prepared with a bull tongue-plow and the roots were torn out using a spring-tooth harrow. Place a tomato plant every four feet and watch it grow. Needless to say, back then there were no watering systems and the plants were not even staked.
Next, the hard job of picking, canning, and shipping to the end user took place. Canning factories sprang up wherever there was a good water source. Factories flourished and continued providing summer jobs through drought and depression years. Wages ranged from 12 to 25 cents per hour (sometimes less for women) or workers were sometimes paid on a piece meal basic according to how many pounds of tomatoes they could peel in a day. (Even the thought of peeling a tomato seems foreign to me).
Most folks, young and old, now have a myriad of summer job possibilities in Branson. Long gone are the days when women would work a full three months just to buy their children’s school clothes. My son worked at Thousand Hills Golf Resort attending carts. His friends worked at White Water, Dixie Stampede or one of the many go cart tracts. All of which were as much fun as work. I hope we always remember that the golden age of Branson was first brought about by, hearty, dedicated Ozark families and to some extent—the tomato.
For more visual information, visit Silver Dollar City Theme Park’s Red Gold Heritage Hall, teemed to historically reflect the Ozarks in its turn-of-the-century heyday of tomato canning and shipping.