The Watermelon Special

When the weather is hot and you’re craving something sweet but refreshing, there’s nothing like a big slice of Florida watermelon. That’s true whether you happen to be in Florida or on the other side of the country, so an important part of Florida’s watermelon industry has always been adequate transportation. These days, Florida watermelons usually get where they’re going by truck, but it hasn’t always been that way. In the old days, well before the age of expressways and 18-wheelers, trains were the main way of getting watermelons from the farm to faraway markets. At peak harvest time in June and July, the supply of watermelons often exceeded the capacity of ordinary trains to handle the crop. The solution? Enter the “watermelon special.”

Watermelon slices ready for a watermelon eating contest at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs (1986).

Watermelon slices ready for a watermelon eating contest at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs (1986).

Men loading watermelons into a car on the Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad in Suwannee County (ca. 1914).

Men loading watermelons into a car on the Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad in Suwannee County (ca. 1914).

Watermelon specials were extra trains that ran in between normally scheduled trains to pick up melons from stations all along the railroad. Most of these weren’t actually stations, just side-tracks or “sidings” that allowed the train to stop long enough to pick up cargo or drop off empty cars for loading and move on. Farm workers would bring their crops up to the empty cars on the sidings and load the melons one by one, packing them carefully to avoid bruising or splitting. Sometimes sawdust or straw were used for extra cushioning, and the general rule was never to stack them more than four melons high. These watermelon loaders may have missed that memo:

“Cannonball” watermelons being loaded in Tavares (1947).

Watermelon was (and is) a big business for Florida farmers. Even as early as 1890, Floridians planted 2,678 acres of melons, which produced 1,491 carloads valued at $95,950. That was a lot of money in those days, roughly equivalent to $2.7 million in 2018 money. In modern times, watermelon production has increased exponentially. In the 2010-2011 season, Florida growers harvested 24,400 acres of melons valued at $111.9 million. We say the 2010-2011 season because Florida is the only U.S. supplier of watermelons that can market them in December, although the bulk of the crop still comes in from May to July.

It was profitable for railroads too. Some companies, like the Georgia & Florida Railroad, even provided circulars to farmers offering the latest advice on methods for growing, fertilizing and harvesting melons. After all, the more melons the farmers produced, the more cargo the railroads would have to ship. The G&F also aimed to get more people eating watermelon by praising its nutritional value in public service announcements. Under the headline “Eat a Slice of Melon a Day!” company president Hugh Purvis urged readers to take advantage of all the benefits of watermelon during its peak season.

Farm workers load watermelons at a Seaboard Air Line depot in Pasco County (1938).

Farm workers load watermelons at a Seaboard Air Line depot in Pasco County (1938).

Atlantic Coast Line car loaded with watermelons from Columbia County (ca. 1920s).

Atlantic Coast Line car loaded with watermelons from Columbia County (ca. 1920s).

The only constant is change, of course, and the days of the watermelon special came to a close as truck transportation became cheaper and faster. Trucks and the trailers they carried could go directly to the fields to load in multiple locations–a feat the railroads simply couldn’t match. Many railroad companies stopped shipping watermelons in the 1950s and 1960s, or ran watermelon specials only in especially heavy years when even the trucks had trouble keeping up with the harvest.

Workers loading a truck with watermelons in Jefferson County (1965).

Workers loading a truck with watermelons in Jefferson County (1965).

What memories do you have associated with watermelon in Florida? Have you ever won a watermelon eating contest? Maybe picked watermelons for summer work or grown a few of your own? Join the conversation by leaving a comment or sharing this post with your family and friends on social media. Also, try searching the State Archives’ Florida Photographic Collection on Florida Memory for more historical photos of watermelon production all around the state.

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3 thoughts on “The Watermelon Special

  1. At age 14, I was making a fortune during the summer labeling watermelons in the boxcars at the Atlantic Coastline Depot in Brooksville. Living a kids dream. Making $1.50 for each car I labeled and all the watermelon I could eat. I ate so much watermelon that now at almost 77 years old, I don’t care much for watermelon.

  2. On a particular hot summer day I was relaxing in the splendor of rural North Florida agricultural experience. No constant telephones ringing, notice did not describe ring tone, no monitors alarming, no crisis intervention going on. To be clear the absence of A/C and cold drinks were recognized. A mixture of about nine or ten shirtless boys and barefoot girls snaking down long rows of crook neck yellow squash. Yellow gold of the Florida Panhandle for any able body person willing to pick. The precious farmer also had short rows of heirloom Charleston Gray Watermelons in short rows The big oblong shaped green striped sweeter than candy and better than soda pop variety. With each turn at the end of the long, long row we would bust open a watermelon and consume every mouthful. Rivers of sweat and sweet juice were outlined from mouth to foot.

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