TILLIE LEWIS

 
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By Tim Sullivan


Today’s fierce female is Tillie Lewis.

Born to Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn in 1896, Tillie worked as a Ziegield Follies girl as a teenager before marrying Louis Weisburg in 1916. Louis owned a wholesale grocery company that imported tomatoes and other produce from Italy. Tillie became convinced that those same tomatoes could be grown domestically, but her husband and other agriculture experts told her she was crazy. Tillie divorced Louis and up and moved to Italy.

In Italy, Tillie studied the tomato industry from the inside out. When the U.S. raised import tariffs on tomatoes by 50%, she saw her opportunity. She convinced the owner of the cannery she worked at to give her tomato seeds and a bit of money and headed to California. She settled on Stockton as the place to launch her business, convinced a few farmers to plant her seeds, and within a decade she had turned San Joaquin County into the number one county in the country for tomato production. Her company was the largest producer of rations for the U.S. Army during World War II.

Tillie grew a reputation for treating her workers well and ended up marrying an American Federation of Labor organizer, Meyer Lewis, in 1947. By 1951, her company was one of the top five canning companies in the country, and she was named “businesswoman of the year” by the AP. She was the only female leader in the industry at that time.

Tillie died in 1977 at the age of 81. The Italian Pomodora tomato that she introduced remains one of the most popular varieties in the country.

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