(photo by Heather Grilliot)

My first watermelon patch was at the age of five. In fact that patch of melons is the only, and earliest memory I have of gardening in my first home on Henrietta Drive in Sumter. I remember watching one beautiful fruit mature and grow for what seemed like a lifetime. I badgered my Dad daily about picking it and cutting it open. We would go out to the patch and I would watch him check for signs of ripeness. It seemed this melon would never be ripe! And unfortunately it never was permitted to fully ripen. I went out as I did every day to check on it and it was gone. I looked around a bit and finally found it in a galvanized trash can by the road. Someone had plugged it, and realizing that it was unripe, tossed it in the trash with the common garbage. I learned a valuable lesson with that first patch…don’t plant your melons where people can see them.

At the age of ten I and two of my older brothers, Danny and Davy, were introduced to the Bradford Family watermelon field. My Grandfather, Theron Bradford, (I’ll refer to him as my PaPa) enlightened us on the history of our watermelons and how to plant them. He showed us an account of them in Fifty Years Along the Roadside, by J.M. Eleazer. He also said that if they were successful, we could sell them and split the money, except for only the choicest ones that would be kept for seed. I fell in love with that field.

My brothers, however, did not share the same feelings. The following years I would plant them with my PaPa and sell them myself. I grew very fond of our watermelon. I learned everything I could about our strange family fruit. The way it was told to me was that my Great Grandfather, L.B. Bradford, was a small truck farmer. His passion was watermelons. He had been selecting and improving this melon for most all of his adult life. My PaPa grew up helping him with his melons. The responsibility was passed down to him, which he continued the same methods of selection. It passed from him to my Father. And now my PaPa was training me.

BradfordFieldMy PaPa taught me that in order to keep the line strong he would mix his seeds with previous seeds from at least 4 years prior. The most important thing I learned, though, is to never, never, never let them cross with another variety. This was ensured by planting them at least a mile away from any other person’s patch. And for three generations that I can attest to, these watermelons rotated about in one little field far away from other patches and well out of sight. And this is how it has been for generations, the older training the younger, then passing the torch.

As far as descriptions go, words cannot do justice. If you ask anyone in the family what they think about “store-bought” melons, you’ll get some variation of “never as good as a Bradford”. It really is funny how we rank every watermelon we eat in comparison to a Bradford. We all would be quick to quip that the best “store-bought” ever doesn’t compare to the best Bradford. I will, as unbiased as I can be, admit that there is a uniqueness to our melon that I have never experienced outside of our fields with any other. Any other melon I’ve had is so firm that I usually get spritzed with juice when I attempt to gouge in with a spoon. But the Bradford meat is so tender and succulent, and is so right through the white of the rind. I have observed with my own kids when they are through eating their watermelon, there is no trace of red or pink left. They eat it down into the rind.

The greatest of all attributes, of course, is sweetness. First of all, the Bradford is the sweetest watermelon I have ever eaten in my entire 37 years. That being said, all I can really compare is one Bradford to the other. And that is partly how we determine which ones are suitable for seed. There are a number of traits that all must be present in order to be deemed a seed melon. We look for the perfect shape: well filled out at both ends, with length and width in good proportion; solid, rich, and uniformly dark green skin; pronounced lobes or sutures (kind of like pumpkins, but not nearly as much), good size and weight, usually between 30 and 40 lbs; good rind thickness compared to flesh, which usually means a rind that’s between ¾ and 1 ¼ inches thick; and of course it must be the sweetest of the sweets. Some years we may have up to ten seed melons, other years as few as one or two. My PaPa recalled even one year there were none to save seed on due to severe drought.

If you placed our watermelon beside the store-bought sorts, ours might look a bit peculiar. Sort of like an alien oversized, green cucumber. No flashy stripes. It hasn’t been updated to easily accommodate the modern refrigerator…no matter how you slice it. A look inside reveals a continuation of its outer peculiarity. You might be expecting small black seeds, or these days, perhaps no seeds at all, but instead what you find are large white seeds, and not that many in comparison to today’s market melon. The large seed size, and the smallish quantity makes it easy and enjoyable to segregate them from the meat in your mouth, whether for seed saving or ready ammo. No bright scarlet flesh, but rather a deep uniform pink. You may also be surprised at the thickness of the rind. Ours comes from a generation when you didn’t waste anything. The rind was made into sweet pickle. So our thick, tender rind was another great quality to the dutiful homemaker, and not a waste of red space. And it was this tender rind, no doubt, that kept it bound to local consumption, because tender rinds are bad for shipping. It is precisely these peculiarities that I find so perfectly attractive. It’s why I’m so proud of our little melon, and why I’m so proud to be a part of its legacy.

Our little family fruit left its field and went on a journey a century and a half ago. It became popular. Then one day it slipped out of popularity and into history…save a small remnant. This remnant continued relatively hidden in a small family field, passed on from one generation to the next, popular to the Bradford family and a handful of close friends looking forward to the next year’s bounty. I look forward to where it goes next!