The Great Tomato Battle of 1937

Because it is the end of the tomato season, and I was just out at the Nagel Farms stand on Detroit Road to get the last of the crop, I thought this story by Robert H. Mersbach Jr., Bay High School Class of 1941, was appropriate. Following are his words:

In 1937, the Mersbach family moved from Rocky River to a house at 444 Bradley Road. Kids today only have Easter eggs, Christmas and birthday presents to look forward to, but the West End kids had all those plus the tomatoes. Most of the survivors of the event would probably select the tomato fights as the best of the lot.

In the West End neighborhood there were as many farm houses as suburban homes. Next to the Mersbach house a farmer named Sam Mingo ran a truck garden farm. The fruits, vegetables and corn crops he raised were sold to the big Cleveland markets. He also had a produce stand in front of his farmhouse where 10 to 25 cents would buy 13 ears of sweet corn for local residents.

Sam had a large tomato patch of about an acre in size, and when he took out all the tomatoes he wanted to sell, he’d call Mother Mersbach and tell her it was okay for the kids to take over. Word quickly spread to the rest of the neighborhood kids and the fun would start. There were only a few simple rules. Everyone wore swim suits and went barefoot.

First, we picked all the good ripe tomatoes, put them in baskets, and set them aside. They were freebies Sam donated to the families of the combatants – sometimes each family got nearly a half bushel, a real present. Next, sides were chosen. There were only a few kids in the neighborhood, so the girls participated and became quite good throwers. My sister, Ginny, eventually learned to throw quite well with either arm, and this was a plus for the team that got her. Each team had an even number of players, the consequences to a short-handed side were awful.

Each team made a 10-12 foot long fort out of bushel basket stacks that Sam left for us. We then scoured the patch for rotten tomatoes and stored them behind the forts. Of course, there were still many small marble and ping pong ball-sized hard green ones we called ‘stingers,’ and everyone was forbidden to throw them, regardless of provocation.

If you have never thrown rotten tomatoes, you can’t begin to imagine the havoc they cause to not only the one they hit, but also to the thrower. Some were so soft and rotten, that if you didn’t throw them slowly with your fingers together, you splattered not only yourself but your nearest team member. This taught us the best distance between the forts was about 20-25 feet. Otherwise, you could easily splat your enemy and yourself in return.

If we’d all rise up together and throw with some accuracy at one spot of the enemy fort, the combined tomatoes' weight would tumble over that section of the fort. One of the rules was you couldn’t stand the fort back up. This reduced the area of protection for the throwers and their tomato supplies. Another tactic was use of the high trajectory, slow pitched, ‘mortar shell’ lob. If you practiced a bit, you could pitch it high over the fort and directly down onto the enemy and their piles of ammunition. Of course they could see it coming, and in scrambling out of the way, allowed your teammates to bombard them and got in some good squishy hits.

One solid tomato hit on an ammunition pile turned much of it into a thick, gooey mass of puree that was useless and didn’t smell good at all. This was a good opportunity for younger brother Fred and me to belt each other with big rotten tomatoes without parental scolding. At the start of one fight, Fred winged me with 2-3 quick, hard green stingers, one of which nearly took off an ear. After warm congratulations by his teammates, this sneak tactic was banned forever.

It would sometimes take several battles and two or three days to use up all the rotten tomatoes. After each battle all warriors submitted to a thorough hosing down from head to foot. Before the clean-up it was difficult to recognize anyone except by height. Even the hair dripped pieces of rotten tomatoes. We all smelled bad too, because the really rotten tomato odor would repel a skunk.

Sam Mingo also had a big melon patch. When he gave the signal, the warriors gathered to do battle again. The rules were basically the same, except after collecting the melons, we sat down with knives and tablespoons, scraped off the bad sections, and feasted on sweet, juicy melons – gorging ourselves for free. If you’ve never been hit on the head with a heavy, rotten cantaloupe, you simply haven’t lived. One good hit could literally flatten you if you were off balance and could send a fort wall tumbling.

Sam Mingo’s farm, originally the Peters' farm, is long gone now. In the 1950s, his and other farms disappeared to be replaced by streets with the names like Pellet, Powell, Walmar and Drake.

kay laughlin

I am the Historian for the Bay Village Historical Society, member and Past President, 1976. Lived in the village since 1936.  I was part of a team that developed the Cahoon farmhouse into Rose Hill Museum in 1973.  I participated by inventoring the Cahoon items and serving as the first Accessions Chairman and as a Docent at the museum for 20 years.  I was part of the committee that brought the Osborn house to Cahoon Memorial Park in 1995 and turned it into a learning center.  Along with my sister, Gay Menning, and the society, we wrote the 'Bay Way of Life' history book in 1974.  When Ginny Peterson asked for my help, I offered my historical pictures and wrote the captions for the Arcadia picture book, 'Bay Village,' published in 2007.  

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Volume 8, Issue 19, Posted 8:58 AM, 10.04.2016