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A Gamble, First Watermelon Carnival Was More Than Envisioned

1938-39 Watermelon Queen Elizabeth Caulfield (left) and Miss Water Valley, Kathleen Hague, pose atop a bed of watermelons to have their picture made.

A mule-drawn parade float from an early 1930s carnival. The float was lapped with rough cut timber and on the side is a sign, “Early Settlers of Camp Ground.” the scene includes a shotgun hanging over the cabin door, an animal hide on the side and several sets of deer antlers.

Ten Early Carnivals— 1931-1940


By Jack Sartain

WV Chamber of Commerce


In 1931 the Water Valley Junior Chamber of Commerce, a few of Water Valley’s most progressive young businessmen, banded together, fired up with desire to get Water Valley ahead. The depression had ended, but the Valley was not recovering as fast as these young men expected. Crops were still not bringing in the money needed, and industry was sparse. They saw a rising star in the crop arena—the watermelon. 

Watermelons grown in this area were superior to any around and they were plentiful. These men saw their value and sought a venue to publicize them. The vision they saw was a carnival — a Watermelon Carn-ival. They realized they had no idea of how to produce a show expansive enough to attract the attention they wanted. So a committee was chosen to find the knowledge they needed. 

No one had money in those days, but this committee, footing their own travel expense, set out to visit cities producing carnival, parades, ect.—the caliper of which they desired to replicate. It worked, they found what they needed to know, now they had to finance their dream. They gambled, borrowed the money, and thus came into being the Water Valley Watermelon Carnival. 


It was held in August and the affair was much more than they had envisioned. A queen was crowned at a gala affair, then she presided over an outstanding parade, and reigned over not only the entire carnival, but also at a fabulous Grand Ball, which concluded the first Carnival. 


Music for this affair was by motion picture star, Nick Stuart, and his Hollywood Band.  Beauty pageant royalty from all over the southeast, along with many other dignitaries, and thousands of former citizens and visitors, attended the carnival.

 

These early carnivals included not only the parades and Grand Balls, but also numerous marching bands, elaborate floats, and many dignitaries from across the state and country. 


There were all types of sporting events—golf, baseball, tennis, skeet shoots, and the list goes on. Food vendors were plentiful, as were arts and crafts booths. All of this was held in Railroad Park. 

Buckeye Carnival Shows provided the street fair in the southern section of the city. However, most of the events were held in downtown Water Valley. Free watermelon slices were provided by Herman White, and barbecue and brunswick stew were cooked and served by John Eddie Hale (a well renowned cook in the area). Tickets were available for this event.

Other bands for the balls found were: 

• 1934 – Lee Conner and his 12 Cannon Balls; 

• 1935 – Carl “Deacon” Moore Band; 

• 1936 – Red Pepper Orchester; 

• 1937 – “Husk” O’Haire and his Genial Gentlemen of the Air.

These carnivals were covered by news media from all over, including the Commercial Appeal, and Fox News Reel in ’36, and Life Magazine one of the years.

Coverage of the 1931 and 1933 carnivals is unavailable, except in news about these two years that was  included in succeeding years publicity. The top recorded estimates of the number of attendees found was 20,000.

 

The queens for these early carnivals were elected the year before their reign. They were queen all year, then concluded their year with the crowning of the following year’s royalty, so getting the year attributed to some of these queen may be incorrect. 

Queens were: 

• 1931, Eleanor Houston 


• 1932, Rachel Tarver

• 1933, Catherine McCor-mick of Coffeeville

• 1934, Dorothy Brown 


• 1936, Hazel Graham, crowned by Gov. Hugh White 


• 1937, Mary Frances Cofer


• 1938, Elizabeth Caul-field; ’


• 1939 – Kathleen Hague, scheduled to be crowned by Gov. Paul Johnson, who was called to Washington, and taking his place was Chancellor L. A. Smith of Holly Springs; and in 1940, Gladys Howard was crowned, but never got to reign over the ’41 Carnival. 

The balls were held in City Auditorium and the Masonic Temple. The queens and their courts were also honored with elaborate teas, held in various homes in the Valley. One mentioned was the home of Hon. and Mrs. Kermit Cofer. 

These early carnivals thrust Water Valley into the limelight as the watermelon capital of the world and for many years melons became a major cash crop for the area, being shipped out by train car loads to points all over the world.

Carnival Committee presidents for the early carnival were: 1931, Earl K. Fly; ’32, W. E. Blackmur; ’33, W. E. Blackmur; 34, Dr. C. C. Stacy; 35, J. Roy Bennett; ’36, W. S. Tyson, ’37, Buck Suratt; ’38, William  T. Trusty; ’39, J. H. Samuels; and ’40, Kermit R. Cofer.

The final of these early carnivals was presided over by Queen Kathleen Hague, and produced by Kermit Cofer and his committee. This honor was fallen his lot due to the death of Errol Spivey before he could complete his duties. In a full page in the 1940 program Mr. Cofer paid tribute to Mr. Spivey, stating that he had been a prime motivator of the carnivals during all its years of existence and that he did not feel worthy to step into this roll as Carnival President. However, Mr. Spivey had requested his filling this position and Mr. Cofer accepted. 

After the 1940 Carnival the Jaycees suspended the event due to the war and it was not held again until 1980.

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