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92-year-old has grown tomatoes from the same seed lineage since 1965

Sybil Gorby gives away her famous seeds and refuses all payment because she is superstitious about selling from her garden

Sybil Gorby, 92, with an heirloom tomato she grew in her garden last year. Gorby has planted the same type of tomato seeds since 1965. (Family photo)
6 min

Sybil Gorby first planted a handful of heirloom tomato seeds in 1965.

Every spring since, Gorby, 92, has planted seeds from that same lineage in her garden in Tyler County, W.Va. By late June, they begin to bloom, and by mid-August, plump, shiny and often-misshapen tomatoes are ready to pluck and eat. She always saves some seeds to plant the following season.

According to Gorby, there’s something exceptional about these seeds, and the large, succulent tomatoes they yield, year after year.

“They have a sweet taste,” said Gorby, who still lives on the same 74-acre farm that she and her late husband built a home on 60 years ago. “They’re the most delicious tomatoes I’ve ever had.”

Her daughter, Sandy Marody, grew up eating them.

“I don’t know what it is, but it’s like magic,” she said. “Those seeds just grow into these wonderful tomato plants.”

Sometimes, the seeds turn into giant heirloom tomatoes, including one from last year’s harvest. Marody shared a photo of her mother holding the large fruit in a Facebook group called “Appalachian Americans.”

People were quite impressed with the photo of Gorby proudly cupping the supersized tomato in her hands. She is even wearing a matching tomato-colored sweater.

“Beautiful lady and tomato looks so yummy,” one person commented.

“This gives me inspiration to continue harvesting my heirloom seeds,” another wrote.

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Gorby has had a green thumb since she was a teenager growing up in Paden City, W.Va. She first got hooked while helping to look after her neighbor’s garden, and “I fell in love with it,” she said.

It brought her endless satisfaction.

“Once you plant a seed, you watch for it to grow and then you start envisioning what they’re going to taste like,” she said.

Seeing a seed bloom and then blossom into edible deliciousness “gives you a feeling of pride,” she continued.

Once she and her husband, Bob, moved to the farm in 1963, she was eager to have a garden of her own. And so she did — and at its peak, it was 40 by 40 yards, and brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as flowers and plants.

“We had everything in the garden,” said Gorby, who worked as a nurse for 45 years — and also tended to her sprawling garden and raised her four children. She grew potatoes, green beans, corn and squash, among other crops and flowers.

“She always had enough food and vegetables to feed the whole community,” said Marody, adding that her mother never accepted money for her produce. “She never sold it. She would give it away.”

“We didn’t have a lot, but boy, did I feel like we were rich,” said Marody, who grew up on the farm with her siblings and now lives in St. Clairsville, Ohio. “It was an amazing life.”

Gorby quickly became known around Tyler County, which has a population of about 8,000 people, for sharing her bounty of fresh produce every year. In addition to offering up fresh fruits and vegetables, she would also make homemade sauces, soups, jams and jellies — which she distributed around town, too.

The only thing she enjoys more than eating her harvest, Gorby said, is sharing it with others, especially her family, including her eight grandchildren. She likes to be sure everybody has something to eat.

Over the years, the community has been grateful for any gift from Gorby’s garden, she said, though the heirloom tomatoes are by far the most coveted crop.

Gorby said she can’t take all the credit for her famous tomatoes. A few years after she started her garden, a friend named Gay Soles, who was also an avid gardener, offered her some tomato plants that grew juicy, delicious fruit.

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“I decided to save the seeds at the end of the season and planted them again at my house,” said Gorby, adding that, to this day, she isn’t sure what type of tomatoes they are. “They grew into such large tomatoes, and everybody liked them.”

“Not only do they have a lot of juice,” she said, “but they have a lot of pulp, too.”

Every year, she uses a spoon to scoop out the seeds from the biggest and best tomatoes, then leaves them in a paper towel to dry. She saves the seeds to replant the following season.

Gorby has been following the same cycle for 58 years. In past seasons, when her garden was the most robust, the tomato plants grew so tall, her husband — who died 18 years ago — needed to use a step ladder to harvest them.

Her favorite way to eat the tomatoes, Gorby said, is by making a bacon, egg and tomato sandwich, on homemade bread.

“Just thinking about it makes me hungry,” she said.

In recent years, Gorby’s garden has shrunk to a more manageable size.

“It’s a lot of work to have a large garden,” said her daughter, who also has a garden of her own. “I’m glad that she passed it on to me, and I’m able to raise a garden as well.”

Gorby now plants most of her produce and flowers on her back porch, making them easier to access. She checks on her tomato plants every day to water them and shoo away insects. Gorby believes gardening is the secret to her long and happy life.

“It keeps me moving,” she said. “You use all your muscles to pull and dig. Maybe that’s why I have been so strong.”

Using seeds her mother gave her, Marody grows the same heirloom tomatoes in her garden every year, though “hers always grow so much better than mine,” she said.

After Marody shared the photo of her mother on Facebook with her giant tomato, strangers reached out asking to buy the seeds.

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“Everybody wanted to give me money for them, but if you give someone money for something that’s going to grow, it may not grow,” said Gorby, explaining that she is superstitious about selling anything from her garden.

Instead, Marody sealed handfuls of seeds in envelopes, and mailed them to those who requested them. For Gorby, the more people who can enjoy the heirloom tomatoes, the better.

“I hope that they can get the joy out of raising them that I do,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”