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Patterson Farm will celebrate history with reunion

Growing up in southwestern Rowan County’s farming country from the 1950s through today meant the possibility of work at one of the Patterson tomato farms.

Hundreds of boys and girls began work in their mid-teens, with some continuing well into their 20s.

The Patterson family has been farming for over 125 years. And there will be a celebration of that history from 5-9 p.m. Saturday at the site of the original James A. Patterson Farm, 3330 Patterson Road. All current and former workers and their families are invited, with donations accepted for a pig picking, live entertainment by Sound Barrier and other expenses related to the reunion. 

“Generations of Pattersons in the past as well as those still raising produce are farming icons in Rowan county,” said reunion committee member Vanessa Bradley said. “Though I wish we had planned the celebration a few years earlier, it’s very fitting that we honor a century of tomato farming. Lots of kids in this area got their first job on one of several Patterson tomato farms.

“Great friendships as well as good work ethic were formed while we picked and packed tomatoes during our teenage years.”

James A. Patterson who began growing vegetables in 1920 was the first who planted large numbers of tomato plants. By 1941, James’ crops consisted of about 30 acres of cotton and 3 acres of tomatoes. Boll weevils damaged most of his cotton crop that year, so James decided to grow 30 acres in tomatoes the following year. In 1946, the family began growing tomatoes commercially under the name, James A. Patterson & Sons.

James and Catherine Patterson’s two sons, Frank and Carl, decided to continue the family business after each graduated from N.C. State University and served in the Army.

In the meantime, James’ brothers, Robert and Chester, along with other area farmers joined the tomato movement. All three Patterson farms were located side by side by side on Patterson Road.

Robert’s daughter, Ollie Patterson McKnight, 89, remembers her family working together and raising all types of produce, milking cows and even selling rabbits and squirrels shot on their farm.

“But we all went to work picking tomatoes,” She said. “At age 4, I picked with my own bucket. We didn’t stake the tomato plants then. They just lay on the ground and every tomato had to be washed.”

Carl and Frank Patterson managed the largest operation together until they decided to divide their farm in 1979. Carl and his wife, Phyllis, formed Patterson Produce and Plant Farm, which has evolved into Patterson Farm, the large operation now operating on Millbridge and Caldwell Roads. 

Frank and his wife, Norma, continued to operate Frank Patterson Farm, which is currently managed by Tim Sloop and Greg Hartsell and remains on Patterson Road. 

David Black, whose family will host the reunion, said it will “recognize and honor those who founded the farms on which we worked and gave us the opportunity to earn and save money.”

“For many of us it was our first paying job. It was manual work, mostly outside and in the hot sun,” Black said. “As we moved on along life’s path, we didn’t shy away from difficult work or tasks that others might view as overwhelming. I would say that most if not all of the young men and women who starting their work experience on these farms have gone on to be successful in many and varied careers.”

Carl Patterson’s son Randall, president of Patterson Farm, echoed the same thoughts. He first rode a bicycle to work at Patterson Farm when he was 13.

“Every employee has played a key role in the evolution of this farm,” Randall said.

Doug Patterson, vice president and Randall’s brother, said growing up on the farm had enabled many in the community to get to know one another and create lasting memories. “

“Many remember my dad would say, ‘Boys and girls you will never have it so good’” Doug said.

One of those young workers was Bobby Harrison, who retired from the Salisbury Police Department as deputy chief after 31 years of service.

“Looking back, I think the hard work, the long hours and friendships made during the ‘tomato field summers’ definitely helped mold me as a person,” Harrison said.

Harrison started work at age 13 in 1966, riding a tractor-style picker while being slapped by wet vines. Mud from the wheel and green sap from the plants coated his arms by the end of the day, but the satisfaction of having worked his first long day was all worth it. 

For more information or to RSVP, call 704-223-3850 or 704-310-6741. The rain location is the Millbridge Ruritan Building at 490 Sloan Road.

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