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.

Retirement is for the Birds… Especially Turkeys

Have you ever known someone who retired and quickly became bored with their new freedom? Some retirees solve this problem by traveling, spending more time with the grandkids, or taking up a hobby. Mrs. W.G. Butler of Havana, Florida found quite an unusual hobby when she became a little dissatisfied with retired life in the 1950s. Skipping the more conventional retirement activities, Mrs. Butler decided to raise turkeys.

Mrs. W.G. Butler with turkeys at the Tot's Tender Turkey Farm, Havana (1952).

Mrs. W.G. Butler with turkeys at the Tot’s Tender Turkey Farm, Havana (1952).

That’s right – turkeys. Mrs. Butler turned her 12-acre plot in Gadsden County into Tot’s Tender Turkey Farm, home to literally thousands of gobbling birds destined eventually for holiday tables across America. Mrs. Butler explained that after decades of moving around the country for her husband’s construction career, she thought settling down would be relaxing. But it wasn’t. Her husband was often out hunting and fishing, and she was alone at home.

Mrs. W.G. Butler with turkeys at the Tot's Tender Turkey Farm, Havana (1952).

Mrs. W.G. Butler with turkeys at the Tot’s Tender Turkey Farm, Havana (1952).

The turkey farm started out merely as something to do. She bought 200 chicks and gave each one a name. Within a few months, however, the enterprise had taken off. A few years into her new-found career, Mrs. Butler was raising and shipping over 7,000 turkeys annually. The hens weighed between 10 and 16 pounds, while the toms weighed between 20 and 23 pounds. She ended up hiring a staff of 30 workers to help feed and inoculate the birds on a regular basis. Turkeys, moreover, love to squabble, and Mrs. Butler reported that she and her workers spent a great deal of time breaking up spats between their charges. So much for a restful and relaxing retirement!

Turkeys feeding at the Tot's Tender Turkey Farm (1952).

Turkeys feeding at the Tot’s Tender Turkey Farm (1952).

Tot’s Tender Turkey Farm is no longer in operation, but the tradition of eating delicious turkey around the holidays still continues for many families across the Sunshine State. What are some of your favorite holiday treats? Share with us by posting a comment below or on our Facebook page!

And… don’t forget to browse the Florida Photographic Collection for more images depicting Thanksgiving traditions in Florida.