Yes, it’s watermelon time on the West End
by Bill Shepard
The race is on! The first home-grown watermelons are due on July 4, and the boys and girls living on the Mill Village are anxiously waiting for the horse- or mule-drawn wagon to roll!
July 4 was the target date! The wagons would be loaded and ready to go. The watermelons would be loaded inside the wagon on the late evening before the day that they were to be carried to Darlington on Saturday. An extra bundle of hay would be tucked under the driver’s seat – it would be night before the team would get back home. The animals and their driver would need a snack before they arrived back at the farm!
Unlike today, a trip from the Dovesville area was a long ride. That was especially true for the one who was sitting on a board, which reached from one side of the wagon to the other. Just as there were few, if any, tractors with which to plow the fields, there were few trucks to haul the harvest to the market.
Ah, what a thrill! This writer remembers well, following behind the wagon loaded with the precious fruit of the vine. As I write, I can see myself, the barefoot boy following along the narrow dirt streets of the Village, stopping when the wagon stopped!
“Watermelons, watermelons!” the farmer, sitting in the driver’s seat, would call loud and clear, and the doors on the Village would open, up and down the street. I would sometimes help him yell; I liked the sound of the word – watermelon, watermelon!
Folk would gather at the wagon and start the thumping process. I did not know why folk did that! It was sorta like watching folk looking at cars and kicking the tires! Why? Since then, I have learned that the thumping method is used to check a watermelon’s ripeness. If it sounds hollow and not high pitched, it is a good indication of ripeness.
One of my favorite and unforgettable watermelon peddlers was one Prince O’Neal. Prince was well-known and well-liked by all the Village folk who knew him. I have written about Prince more than once and his name always comes to the front of my mind when I start to write about watermelons.
Prince lived in the Dovesville area and was usually the first or among the first to be seen on the Village with the first watermelons of the year. He would travel over the Village with his melons, stopping here and there when someone came out to the wagon. As a usual thing, they would reach inside the wagon, thump as many as could be reached and then ask, “How much are you asking for them?”
The price ranged from 10 cents to 25 cents, with an occasional 35 cents for an extra large one. Sometimes a little boy would ask, “Mister, will you sell one for a nickel?” More than likely, the little boy would leave the wagon carrying a watermelon in his arms.
Prince and my grandmother were kinfolk, but I never knew what the connection was. I just knew that when Prince came to the Village with his watermelons, he never failed to stop by our house. Besides being a good farmer, he was also a good guitar player. I liked to hear him pick and sing. Sometimes, he would eat a snack before leaving our house. When Prince left our house, there would be at least two of his largest melons, resting on the front porch.
There were others that came to the Village, but as the summer season moved along and the days of August grew hotter, the wagons stopped coming. Occasionally, a farmer might choose to park his wagon under a shade tree near the old mill and wait for the morning shift workers to be released. That would happen on Fridays – that was payday!
Ah, the thrill of seeing Dad approaching home with a big watermelon on his shoulder. Oh, what memories! I would not want to exchange them for any other memories!
It mattered not as to when Dad purchased a watermelon. It would not be cut until Sunday afternoon. Dinner being over (noon), Dad would take the melon to the back yard for the cutting. There were always some of the neighbors’ children there to join in the eating, and they were always welcome. The number present at the time determined how large the slice would be, but there was always enough for each to get a slice.
Those were times far removed from the happenings of the years that followed those awful ’30s. There were days and years of sacrifice, “people helping people,” learning to share and appreciate and be kind. Yes, this writer learned that a little kindness could go a long way!
Today, I cut my first watermelon for the year. I could not wait for the Fourth of July! There were no squealing little children present, so I cut a large portion of it and carried it to my neighbor. There will be no wagons loaded with melons passing by and no voices heard saying – “Watermelons, watermelons!”
And it is doubtful that there will be any others writing about when they were a boy, following behind a loaded wagon and joining with the driver when he calls with a loud voice – “Watermelons, watermelons!”