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Johnny Vardeman: Celebrating summers song about tomatoes
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“Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes. What would life be without homegrown tomatoes?”

That’s part of a song recorded by John Denver and Guy Clark, a tribute to the ripe red fruit (it’s not a vegetable) that people salivate over this time of year. Mention “’mater sammiches,” more formally tomato sandwiches, in the summertime, and people’s mouths begin watering.

It is a rite celebrated in the South, but also elsewhere, that when those homegrown Big Boys start straining their vines, bread and mayonnaise will begin flying off the grocery shelves as people gorge themselves with this delicacy as if there would be no tomorrow.

There are even ’mater sammich luncheons. Jack’s Vacs has one every year, and the farmers’ market off Jesse Jewell Parkway in Gainesville usually does. Glen-Ella Springs near Clarkesville normally has a tomato festival during the summer, there’s one in Atlanta, other places around Georgia and other states.

One of the longest-running such events is the BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato) luncheon put on this year for perhaps the last time by Jack McKibbon, Howard Whelchel, Joe Wyant, Howard Page, Brent Danneman, Lee Martin and George Seelke. After 21 years, it might ride off into the sunset in one of those vintage automobiles that are always on display during the luncheon at McKibbon’s warehouses on Murphy Boulevard in Gainesville.

After all, McKibbon is 92 years old, he and Dr. Johnny Burns the only members of their Gainesville High School Class of 1941 scarfing down tomato sandwiches the other day. But Page and Danneman aren’t quite so sure. They and some others say they might consider continuing the tradition.

McKibbon and cohorts put together the first one with maybe 50 people attending. Jack is the daddy of McKibbon Brothers, which was in the grocery business, then formed Mar-Jac Poultry Co. before getting into the hotel business, which included the old Holiday Inn on Jesse Jewell Parkway, the long-gone Avion Motel and Restaurant in downtown Gainesville and other properties in the Southeast.

Page worked with the company 22 years, and though retired for 28 years, has been one of the “go-to” guys for McKibbon, including the heavy lifting for the luncheon. That involves seeing that enough tomatoes are on hand from vines Whelchel nurses on the warehouse property.

Page estimates the crowd of 200 this year went through two bushels of tomatoes, 32 loaves of bread, 15 gallons of iced tea, 15 big sacks of potato chips, 15 heads of lettuce and 50 pounds of bacon. That doesn’t include numerous jars of Duke’s mayonnaise (gotta be Duke’s, Page says) and 15 gallons of peach ice cream.

The late Cecil Jones, also associated with McKibbon, used to churn the peach ice cream himself. They buy it already made now, but people lick the bowls clean nonetheless.

As many as 350 have attended the luncheon. Only about half of those who come receive an invitation; the rest from habit, instinct or word of mouth, but they’re always fed. Some came from Florida, North Carolina and Alabama this year.

It gives Page considerable satisfaction to have people call him afterward to thank him and the others for sharing the food and fellowship. He also enjoys seeing such a diverse group get together and acquaintances he may not have seen since last year, not to mention the smiles on faces devouring those ’mater sammiches.

As the song says, “Only two things that money can’t buy, that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”

Northeast Georgians truly love their homegrown tomatoes.

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Footnote: The present Belton Bridge in north Hall County was completed in 1986. It replaced a temporary Bailey bridge erected years after a covered bridge at the site over the Chattahoochee River burned. The current bridge crosses a narrow neck of Lake Lanier where the river first forms the lake.

Bailey bridges also replaced Brown’s and Thompson bridges after a flood washed them away in March 1946.

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As telephones became more common in the early 1900s, new companies formed to expand lines to unserved areas, especially rural sections. One of those was the New Bridge Telephone Co., started in March 1909 to bring service to the Whelchel’s District out Thompson Bridge Road. It signed up 23 customers when it began. Claud Thompson was president of the company.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.