There was a time in Johnson City history when produce stores and stands were bountiful with such names as Burbage, Lowry, Sell, Deck & Noe, Gilmer & Garland, Street & Dougherty, Tittle, B&B, Lacy, Willis, C.W. Lane, McKinney, Tri-City, Garland, Kelly, Bond, Crouch, Miller, E&T, Ben Garrison (bananas) and Hicks (tomatoes).
Without question, the one I recall the most from the 1950s was Earl Hicks Produce, located at 124-126 W. Market at Commerce and adjacent to Guy’s Restaurant. My great uncle, Walter Bowman, and his son, Shirley, worked there for years. Almost every time I strolled past the stand on my journey to town, I stopped and conversed with Walter.
Boones Creek resident John Hughes fondly recalls his association with the businessman: “I never worked directly for Earl,” said Hughes. “I was an independent driver along with Bob Chandley; cousins, Bill Hughes and Lindsey Hughes; and my brother, Raymond. We hauled tomatoes exclusively. Earl employed 30 people plus kept nine smaller store trucks in operation.
“Pat Bryant was Earl’s buyer. He went to Patterson, CA every September 15 for a couple of months and bought tomatoes, eventually working his way south and back east. My job was to follow behind him and bring back to Johnson City the tomatoes he bought. Over the next eight months, I drove to Laredo, TX; Humboldt, TN; Homestead, Fort Pearce and Immokalee, FL; and Beaufort and Lady Island, SC to pick up tomatoes.”
Repacking operation at Hicks Produce, John Hughes is shown at the right
John related how Pat often bought all the tomatoes a farmer had long before they were grown, that being his way of getting quantity and locking in the price. The store needed a minimum of 36,000 pounds of green tomatoes coming in each day between Sept. and July. John alleged how Earl would occasionally go to a fruit auction in Moultrie, GA and bid two or three times the going price, identifying him as a serious buyer and causing sellers to take notice of him.
Earl rented a temperature control storage facility on E. Fairview in the Carnegie section close to the railroad that he used to insure that his tomatoes stayed cool and did not over ripen. Even during truck transports in hot weather, drivers had to frequently stop for ice and use a fan to circulate air in the truck.
According to John: “Earl had what we called a repack operation at his Market Street store, which separated ripe and partially ripe tomatoes from green ones. As tomatoes were fed onto a conveyor belt, workers positioned on each side of it removed unripe ones and placed them in a storage cooler. The remaining tomatoes continued to the end of the belt where they dropped through one of several different sized holes, allowing tomatoes of the same approximate size to be shipped to customers. These tomatoes were then repacked and delivered to large supermarket chains all over the northeast.
“Earl closed the store every year, between July 4 and Sept. 15, which corresponded to the time homegrown tomatoes were available locally. This gave the workers a much-needed vacation and me the opportunity to make other truck deliveries.”
John fondly recalls the time in 1955 when Press-Chronicle writer, Dorothy Hamill, interviewed him in a back alley off Commerce Street soon after he arrived at the produce stand with a truckload of tomatoes. She had a Press-Chronicle photographer take his picture while in his truck and then featured him in an article for the newspaper.
John concluded: “I really enjoyed hauling tomatoes for Earl Hicks between about 1952 and 1958.” That was a half century ago.