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Reflections

Early Festival Spawned Melon Production

By Charles Cooper


Hello everyone, hope you’re having a good week.  I was thinking about the upcoming Watermelon carnival and, as I mentioned in a previous column, I thought that I had written enough about the origin of this event and I would like to concentrate on the personal side about the growing of the watermelons and the growers themselves.  
In the 1930s Herman White was the largest grower in the county and possibly in the entire state.  Nearly every farmer in the area grew some watermelons along with cotton and corn, but there was a limited market commercially.  After the first watermelon carnival in 1931, all that changed.  Visitors from out of town learned about Water Valley watermelons for the first time and took the news home with them.  
Since many of them were former residents who now lived in Memphis and Chicago, the word spread through the mid-west.  Mr. White saw a golden opportunity in those large metropolitan areas and he got farmers and businessmen together, forming a co-op that was always  known  as the Watermelon Association.  
The premise was simple, the railroad wasn’t interested in small farmers such as Jim Gore and Papa Badley because their shipments were not  large enough to be profitable.  This is where  the association came in, by pooling many small farmers together, it would become a profitable arrangement for everyone.      
The following year was targeted and in the interim they contacted growers in Alabama and Georgia about the best melons as to size and durability on long trips.  They learned about a new hybrid melon called a Cuban Queen which was a cross between a citrine and a melon called the “Georgia Rattlesnake.”
Watermelons had fancy names in those days such as Tom Watson, Florida Giant, Texas Jumbo and many others.  The Cuban Queen seemed the best choice over all because it had a tough rind like the citrine and a sweet taste like the Rattlesnake, so it became the melon of choice by the association but other melons were allowed if the growers desired.  
The Cuban Queen was a fairly large melon light green with dark green stripes and wouldn’t burst during the long train rides. It grew well in the sandy soil in Yalobusha county. The railroad set up special trains commonly called “berry trains” with priority schedules that would over ride even passenger schedules and brought in the twenty-four hundred engines with high drivers capable of speeds up to 100 miles per hour.
The freight cars were spotted on sidings east of where the old Big Yank building is today. I was just a little kid but I remember going with Papa to the loading area and it was exciting to see farm wagons and trucks coming in, having the loads counted and put on the cars.  It was a slow process because it was necessary to load the melons by hand, which was usually done by two men on the vehicle and two in the car. One man in the truck or wagon handed it to the other who handed it to the man in the car door who, in turn handed to his helper, who placed them where they would lie until they reached their destination  
When they were unloaded the next vehicle in line moved up and the process was repeated. I enjoyed these trips because someone always had a table to slice a melon and since everyone knew me, I got to eat all the watermelon I wanted.  
I thought you would like to see the part of the festival that visitors never saw.  My email address is cncooper1@hotmail.com or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, TN 38101 and have a great week.

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