Melon Festival Origins Can Be Traced To Peaches
By Charles Cooper
Hello everyone. Hope you’re having a good week. As I said in last week’s column, the Watermelon Carnival is almost here. As I’ve been doing each year, I wanted to briefly recap how and when the Carnival got started.
It was 1931 and the country was in the grip of the depression. In Water Valley one bank had failed, the railroad shops had moved away and unemployment was extremely high. City business leaders, headed by Edwin Blackmur, wanted to do something that should at least get people’s minds off their misfortunes, at least for a time. They had heard about a Peach Festival in Forrest City, Arkansas so they sent a delegation over there to learn what it would take to stage their own festival.
Since watermelons were a major crop, they decided it should be called a Watermelon Carnival. They contacted Bright and Newhouse, a decorating firm to help with the decorating of the stores and other publicity. The stores cooperated by hanging banners and displaying signs. City and county officials and local churches helped in many ways. Shine Tyson, the owner and operator of the Grand Theater, also an artist, built a float and gave advice to other builders. The floats were mounted on wagons and laborers were hired to pull them.
There were no spotlights, so the railroad donated a green and red flare and two boys walked on either side of the parade holding them. The first Queen was Eleanor Houston and after the parade ended at the old gym which stood where the City Hall is now, the Queen was crowned and a coronation ball was held.
During the day there were free watermelon cuttings and bands from Ole Miss and Northwest Community College and local school bands entertained. Herman White, the largest watermelon grower in the state at that time, assisted by Lloyd Davenport provided the watermelons. Today you would find it hard to believe that during the watermelon season the Watermelon association headed by Mr. White would ship as man as 20 car loads a day to either Jackson, Tenn. or Champlain, Ill. to be sent on to Chicago and other northern cities.
Papa Badley grew watermelons on a smaller scale but he and the late Paul Ashford grew some of the largest melons at that time. I can remember going to the railroad yards with them where the cars were set out to be loaded.
I won’t list all the businessmen who helped set this up, but I will say of all of them only Mr. Bill Trusty is still alive and as I’ve asked each year why is there no recognition of him at the Carnival while he is still around to appreciate it. Then as now it was a time for people to reconnect with friends, family and classmates.
As I recall, the streets were roped off about the First Baptist Church and below the Depot South and the streets were crowded with people. All this was confined to one day and night, and it wasn’t until the last one that it was extended to two days.
The constraints of space don’t give us time to include the names of all the business people who had a hand in the production as well as the list of the queens who reigned over the years. I don’t know how many of those queens are still alive but if anyone has that information it would be interesting to know.
We live in different times today, and there is a street dance to replace the parades and floats of the past and the park is largely given up to arts and crafts and food and drink stands. I like the way it is today as it gives me a chance to meet old friends and make new ones from people who read Reflections.
Last year I was able to attend the pancake breakfast and the antique car displays at Shuffield Park. One thing I forgot to mention earlier was a table that Mr. Harvest French had set up near the tracks. I remember him offering me a slice of watermelon. He and Papa Badley were friends, and they both were part of the Jumpers Chapel family. One other thing I’d like to include were the names of many of the watermelons of that day.
They included Cuban Queens, Tom Watsons, Florida Giants, Texas Jumbos, Dixie Queens and there were probably more that I don’t remember. I remember Papa Badley telling me that the Cuban Queen was a hybrid developed from a melon and a citron.
The citron gave it an extremely thick rind that wouldn’t be damaged in shipping. The only down side to this was that a small number of citrines would be in every crop. I hope all of you enjoyed this trip down memory lane and I hope to see many of you at the Watermelon Carnival.
My email address is email@example.com or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, Tn 38101 and have a great time at the Carnival.