"Watermelons Fresh and Fine.
Watermelons Right off the Vine."
Truck farming in the Ark-La-Tex during the Great Depression was a very necessary way of life. Everyone that was able to work cultivated a pretty large garden and some even had larger “truck patches” of watermelons. Home grown vegetables were a way of survival helping carry many a family through the hard times by raising what they needed and selling the watermelon.
My earliest recollection of a garden was in early spring, about 1944 - 45. I was in our family garden with my mother while she was setting out onion slips. (Ref: from Webster’s Dictionary: onion - “A widely cultivated Asian herb of the lily family with pungent edible bulbs.”)
“Asian family ”: I never knew that! But I can tell you, I like a nice sweet onion like the Vedalia or the 1015, raw, or most any way it is prepared. And like most any adolescent adult, I like fried onion rings best. There is one chain of East Texas drive-in restaurants that prepares their ORings the most scrumptious you have ever eaten. Many of you know just which one I am talking about. Every little town that is anything, has one.
Meanwhile back to my gardening. Mother was setting out onion slips, a term given the little onion bulb about the size of your thumb. The ground was already prepared and soft. She would, of course, plant in rows by using her finger to make a hole in the soil and set the bulb into it. Then cover it about an inch deep.
There were many other vegetables planted in our garden, many from seed packets bought at the same place as the onion slips: the feed store in Atlanta, Texas that is. Mother and her big helper, me, also planted radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, the whole host of fresh and enjoyable stuff. We used the little seed envelopes placed on a stick to mark the row, identifying what was planted there. Then the “fun” part began in a long wait, plus a lot of work cultivating until harvest time.
“I like everything in this garden, with bread,” I told my mother.
Now don’t get to thinking that my dad escaped this laborious gardening chore. He was one of the hardest working men I ever knew. Bar none. He worked diligently in the garden when it might get too hard for everyone else. But he also had a more serious interest in what was called his “cash crops.”
A “cash crop” was one that he could raise to maturity, harvest it and take it to market, turning it into cash. Dad, in addition to his regular job in the oilfield, used truck patches of an acre or more in size to grow corn, peas, cantaloupes and watermelons. He could later deliver some of that produce to large city super-markets and put cash in his pocket. Dad liked that a lot. We country folk like the rattle of change in our pockets.
One of his favorite fall pastimes was the “peddling” of watermelons throughout the countryside. That way he got to see and talk to a lot of people. Oh, by the way, it was one of my favorite adolescent and teenage activities with my father, too. We were busy, worked hard together, had some fun, made a lot of friends and a little money.
At autumn-time harvest, especially for watermelons, Dad and I would pick and load a half-ton truck and trailer full of those luscious dark green, red-meated, widely cultivated African vine fruit of the gourd family. The melons were of various sizes, medium to large and were all near ripe and ready to eat. We prepared our load one afternoon and early evening for “peddling” the next day. Most often one of us would take the water hose at home to spray-clean the entire load.
Living near McLeod, Texas, about an hour west of the mighty Red River bottomland, we would leave home before daybreak the next morning. Dad drove over into Louisiana, usually near Ida, Hosston and Plain Dealing, into the great Red River bottoms. There, it was also cotton harvest time. During those years, before mechanical harvesters, hundreds of African-American workers, perhaps sharecroppers and other cotton pickers were out in the fields working hard, bringing in the cotton.
Dad would drive slowly down the back roads and often into the cotton fields as we carried watermelons to these people. They dearly loved watermelons which were seldom grown in their cotton country. We sold melons from twenty-five cents to a dollar apiece. The smallest ones were twenty-five cents and a large one might go for a dollar. Before many hours passed, we would empty our entire load and get ready to head for home for supper.
But then if enough daytime remained, we could stop by a large plantation estate and pickup (harvest) pecans on the halves. Meaning, we could keep half of what we picked up. The biggest problem there was that all of the pecans were the very small variety. Again, no bigger than the end of your thumb. They were hard to crack and shell, but most succulent with the best flavor I ever tasted. We often brought home three or four gallons of those little pecans. Mother was happy to get them, but often fussed about the shelling problem they presented. I can hear her now, “Can you boys find some larger pecans, somewhere?”
My favorite memory of watermelon “peddling” goes something like this... Dad would drive along very slowly with his head out the window, or I would ride outside on the fender or on the load and we went about the cotton fields shouting loudly as “customers” came running from the fields: “Watermelons, watermelons, fresh and fine. Watermelons, watermelons right off the vine.”
N. RAY MAXIE, former Texas Highway Patrolman and Special Texas Ranger, native Texan, now retired, enjoys writing short stories from experiences as a youth in the Ark-La-Tex area, as well as career experiences on Texas highways.