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Tomato Queen of San Joaquin subject of Haggin Museum symposium

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Tomato Queen of San Joaquin subject of Haggin Museum symposium

Kyle Tobin-Williams holds a 1950s photo of Mantecan Dr. Clair Weast and tomato canning magnate Tillie Lewis. She will be a presenter at the Oct. 25 symposium on the life of Tillie Lewis at the Sto...

GLENN KAHL /The Bulletin


POSTED September 22, 2009 4:25 a.m.

It’s going to be all about Tillie Lewis, “Tomato Queen” of the 20th century, at a Haggin Museum symposium in Stockton set for Oct. 25 with a hosted lunch included – focusing on a woman who went above and beyond in a man’s world.

Former Manteca Realtor Kyle Tobin-Williams, is one of four scheduled presenters having spent years collecting Lewis memorabilia in the process of writing a book on the late tomato canning magnate  and Tillie Lewis Foods – becoming  a historian in her own right in the process.

When Tobin-Williams left the real estate business in 2002 she became a full-time college student.  She graduated in 2006 summa cum laude with induction into the academic honor society, Phi Kappa Phi and the Historical Society of Phi Alpha Theta.  In 2007 she began teaching and obtained her life-time teaching credential and taught in Manteca schools for the last two years.

It was while she was in college that she began to research the life and times of Mrs. Tillie Lewis through archiving the Tillie Lewis Collection at the Haggin Museum as well as interviewing family, friends and associates with a passionate resolve.  It was a time in Central Valley history when Manteca’s Dr. Clair Weast used his food technology degree as a chemist working for Lewis creating the first American Medical Association approved diet plan.

She said she came upon the Tillie Lewis story when her husband Richard – working in can manufacturing – visited the old Stockton cannery.  He told her of the many large portraits on the walls of the facility erected by an appreciative work force.

Tobin-Williams has one 8-foot portrait in her collection – by WPA painter Mortimer Gassner – along with the Lewis “Tasty Diet Stove.”   That particular portrait had been on display at the Stockton Courthouse where workers carried it out and put it into the back of her truck.

Harry Rosen was one of Tillie Lewis’ employees who turned down a deferment to the draft during World War 11 – a deferment arranged by Lewis for a number of her tomato plant workers.  He reportedly told her it was his duty to serve his country as a Jew.  Ironically he was with General George Patton when his troops entered the Auschwitz prison camp in Germany.  Rosen was a chemist for the Army and a plant engineer for Lewis.

When he was opening C-rations he found a Flotill spinach can with a red, white and blue label.  He wrote a note on the back of the label thanking Mrs. Lewis and mailed it to her “for keepin’ us eatin’”— becoming part of her prized collection from friends.

Concerned he wouldn’t have a job when he returned from the war, he walked into the plant hearing the clicking of a woman’s shoes coming up behind him.  “Harry, when are you getting back to work?” as he swung her around and she hugged him.

Tobin-Williams said she has uncovered some amazing stories from the people who knew and worked for Lewis who have set up shrines in their homes in her honor.  Lewis was reportedly the first valley employer to openly rehire Japanese in her canning operation.  While much of the country’s employers were turning their backs on the returning Japanese workers, Lewis was quoted as saying, “I’m not participating in this!”

Tobin-Williams continues working on the manuscript of her book on Tillie Lewis that promises to be a hard cover with some 500 pages.

Dr. Ken Albala, UOP History Department chair, will focus on Tillie’s influence on Italian-American food and twentieth century dieting.  

Dr. Carolyn de la Pena of U.C. Davis is going to be talking about artificial sweeteners.

Associate Dean of the university, Dr. Edie Sparks, will tell of Tillie’s role as a woman in business in the ‘40s and beyond.

The University of the Pacific History Department, Phi Beta Kappa, and the University of the Pacific Gender Studies are presenting the event from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.  RSVPs are necessary, and for reservations, email kalbala@pacific.edu.

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