It Is Watermelon Time!
By Bill Shepard
Yes, it is watermelon time! There is no place on earth that produces larger, sweeter, and redder watermelons than right here in Darlington County. Those foreign grown substitutes for the real thing can now take a back seat; their superior has arrived. ‘Taste them again for the first time.” Go ahead, boast of your tall skyscrapers, fast moving transits, museums, and parks, but leave first place for homegrown watermelons to Darlington; no other place can come close.
There is nothing more satisfying to the taste buds than a huge slice of cold watermelon on a hot summer’s day. Better still, go to the field early in the morning, while the dew is still wet on the vines, find you a melon and burst it with your fist, reach inside and tear its heart out and begin eating. Allow the cool melon juice to run through your fingers and on down to your elbow, then drip to the earth below. Go ahead, you are in watermelon heaven, there is nothing to compare!
It is time for the wagons to roll! Long before the roads leading in and out of Darlington were covered with asphalt and cement, then filled with fast-moving vehicles, watermelons were hauled to town by the wagonload. They were a most welcomed sight to those of us who had not seen a watermelon since late last summer. Unlike today, watermelons were not seen in the market place the year round. The first farmer to enter the village where I lived, usually early in July, was as welcome as Santa Claus in December. The mule-drawn wagon would enter the village around mid morning on Saturday, having traveled from as far away as Dovesville. Its presence would be made known by the vendor crying out- “watermelons, watermelons for sale.” From that point on it would be followed by small children, all in hopes that their parents would make a purchase before the wagon had made its last street and headed for town a mile away. The farmer had his melons priced to fit just about everyone. Prices ranged from a nickel to a quarter, seldom would one have to pay more.
It would be hard to find a person who lived on the village at the time of which I write about, who does not remember the name Prince Oneal. Prince was a farmer in the Dovesville area and was a regular peddler on the streets of Darlington. He was also an accomplished musician with the guitar and fiddle. He was what I considered to be a genuine “fiddler” in every sense of the word. Prince and my grandmother, Theodosia Oneal Shepard, were distant cousins, just how distant I do no know. I was always glad to claim a little kinship with Prince and especially when he carne to the village with his wagon loaded with watermelons. Most of the time, he would stop by our house to talk with Grandma and eat a snack before going on to town to sell the watermelons he had left. If a guitar was available, and usually there was one, Prince couldn’t leave before picking and singing a song or two for Grandma and others who would usually gather on the big porch. I remember that Grandma would always request him to sing a song about two little girls that supposedly drowned in a place called Jefford’s Millpond. I suppose it was a true event that happened before my time. True or not, Grandma would cry and I would, too. Every once in a while, even at this time long past, I catch myself humming the tune and even singing a line or two of the song that I still remember.
There were other vendors who would visit the village regularly each summer, but none stand out in my memory as does Prince. As the hot summer time progressed, the melon peddlers would become more scarce. By late August and early September, the prime watermelon season was over, and the wagons would stop coming. A person might ride to the countryside on a Sunday afternoon and find a late watermelon patch, but that did not happen often.
No memory is more pleasant to my recall than that of watermelon time. Especially the times when Dad would take the big watermelon outside for the cutting. That would be the moment that all the household had waited for since the melon was first purchased. Dad would methodically place the melon on the long wash bench and as we all looked on, he would plunge the long knife blade into one end of the melon. If the melon was good ripe, and it usually would be, the rind would begin to split as he moved the blade slowly along to the opposite end. The first sight of the bright red of the inside of the melon would start the mouth to drooling. After each one had received a large slice of the luscious melon, the crowd would grow quiet as each in his or her own way would devour the fruit of the vine. Days later, seeds could be seen sprouting from the earth where they had been spat as the melon had been eaten. Some might grow and possibly produce a small melon before frost came to claim it.
Talk about your good times and pleasant memories all you wish, but for me, there are none as memorable as those I have of “watermelon time” in Darlington a long time ago.
Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week. His mailing address 324 Sunny Lane, Piedmont, S.C. 29673.