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Carnivals Brought Hope During Depression Era

By Charles Cooper

Hello everyone hope you’re having a good week.  As I said last week I wanted to do my annual column about the origin of the Watermelon Carnival.  Having said that, I hope this year they will acknowledge Mr. Bill Trusty as the last survivor of the group of businessmen who started this tradition.  

I know most of you already know the story but for those who don’t and for those who like to go down memory lane this is for you.

The year was 1931 and the country was in the grip of the depression. The Peoples Bank of Water Valley had failed, the railroad shops were gone and cotton was seven cents a pound. Paying jobs, if you could find one, were about fifty cents a day.  

The businessmen and civic leaders led by Edwin Blackmur wanted to do something to take peoples minds off of the hard times even if for only one day.  They had heard about the Peach Festival in Forrest City, Ark., so they sent a delegation to get information as to how organize such a venture.  

They hired the firm of Bright and Newhouse to supervise in the building of the floats and the decorations of the stores on Main Street. The Jaycees were at the forefront of all this and they included nearly every young businessman in town. The first Watermelon Queen was Eleanor Houston.  

A parade was held beginning at the park and ending at the old gym, where the City Hall is now.  The railroad division office was still there and since there were no spotlights, donated red and green flares were carried by two boys walking on each side of the street.  

Surrounding towns entered floats and also their high school bands. Shine Tyson, owner of the Grand Theater and an artist in his own right, entered a float and helped decorate some of the other floats. The first free watermelon cutting was presided over by Mr. Joab Mauldin and drew a large crowd. This became a regular part of the carnival each year.

Mr. Herman White, the largest grower in the state, provided melons each year thereafter.  This helped promote Water Valley as a watermelon center and at one time it was known as the Watermelon Capital of the World.  This led to the founding of the Watermelon Growers Association which shipped melons to many of the northern cities.  

Papa Badley said that in a good year he made as much off an acre of watermelons as he could off an acre of cotton with less work.  I can barely remember as a little kid going to the railroad siding and watching them load the melons in the freight cars.  I remember a small table set up and Mr. Harvest French cutting a watermelon and giving me a slice.  

The fame of Water Valley melons grew so that everyone with a truck would go through the Delta and advertise Water Valley melons and many had never been close to Water Valley.  You younger people would find it hard to believe that most melons were sold for about a penny a pound.  

As usual I digress so back to the parade and the Coronation Ball. The first year Buck Suratt was head of the entertainment committee and he hired the Colie Smoltz orchestra from Memphis to provide the music and they were so popular that they came several more years.  I realize by today’s standards this doesn’t seem like such a big deal but in 1931 people didn’t have much in the way of entertainment and it was a chance to meet old friends who had moved away.  

It was estimated that first year that about twenty-five thousand people attended so it was a great success. The carnival was suspended just prior to WW11 and started back in 1980 and has been a success every year.  The constraints of space didn’t permit me list all of the organizers of the first carnival and the Queens up to 1941 but the lists were impressive.  

I hope you have enjoyed this bit of history and I hope to see many of you at this year’s festivities.  My email address is or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, Tn 38101 and have a great week.

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