The Sweet Season

“When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took; we know it because she repented.”
—From Mark Twain’s Pudd’nHead Wilson

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Sam Gause

The signature sound of a Southern summer begins, oddly, with a butcher’s knife.

Somehow, it’s better if it’s an old butcher’s knife, its blade dark with age, its wooden handle worn smooth by years of use.

The blade pierces deep into the cold flesh and is drawn a few inches until that most familiar sound is heard — a crack, then the distinctive tearing sound that Southerners seem to recognize from birth — the sound of a watermelon splitting in half, exposing its bright red meat, enticing all to indulge in its crisp sweetness.

In these parts, this siren’s call of summer is brought to us most often by Johnny and Glenn Gilmer. For the past 14 years, the brothers have operated Cherokee Watermelons on their 40-acre farm near Caledonia.

Watermelons may be just one of many crops raised on the family farm, but in some respects it is the one crop that everyone in the Golden Triangle seems to eagerly await.

While Glenn’s participation is limited — he has a full-time job as a store manager at Jimmy Sanders, an agriculture supply company in Hamilton — most of the farming is done by Johnny, 37, who took over the family farming operation after graduating from Mississippi State University in 1998.

The large-scale watermelon operation — the Gilmers plant anywhere from 15 to 30 acres of watermelons each year — is something Johnny started.

“Daddy planted some watermelons, but it was just a couple of rows, mainly for the family,” Johnny says. “But when I came back from Mississippi State, I started putting in a big crop. I figured everybody loves watermelons.”

And it is unlikely that anyone loves watermelons more than Johnny Gilmer, when you consider what it takes to put in and harvest hundreds and hundreds of watermelons each year.

This year, Johnny planted 15 acres. A machine lays down 5,000-foot rolls of plastic into rows of seedbeds. It is at this point that the mechanical aspect of watermelon growing begins and ends.

“Let’s see, with 15 acres, that’s about 14 miles of watermelons,” says Johnny. “That’s 14 miles of planting seeds on your hands and knees. We pick all the watermelons by hand, too. Yeah, it’s pretty hard work, but come the first of July, it’s worth it. Can you imagine not having watermelons in July?”

Planting starts in April, and the whole family — along with a couple of hired hands — are involved.

“The big thing about making a good crop is rain and heat,” Johnny says. “Watermelons don’t need a lot of rain, but they need it at the right time, when they are beginning to grow.”

The first ripe watermelons appear at the first of July. By the end of that month, the crop is pretty much exhausted as the intense heat of August takes its toll.

“I guess that’s why we never get tired of watermelons,” says Glenn, 39. “We only have them for about a month, then they’re gone until next year.”

Neither Johnny nor Glenn have ever bothered to keep a tally of how many watermelons they produce in a season, but the yield easily ranges into the thousands.

“We’re about the only ones around here that are growing them at any volume,” Glenn says. “There was a Mr. Goodman that did it awhile back, but he retired about the time we got started.”

Glenn says their watermelons average around 30 pounds and retail for $5 to $7.

With the exception of a small crop of yellow-meated melons that Johnny says a few folks demand, the crop is grown from a Jubilee-type seed that produces a large, light green watermelon with distinct dark-green stripes. The melons have a tough rind, nearly an inch think. It is an excellent commercial watermelon as it holds up amazingly well during shipping.

The Gilmers sell most of their watermelons from a farm stand in the Caledonia area near the intersection of Cherokee and Wolf roads and at the Hitching Lot Farmers’ Market in Columbus, which is Glenn’s primary contribution to the operation.

Glenn brings a 16-foot trailer to the market.

“We don’t bring any home with us, either,” he says.

They also sell to small-scale peddlers, who drive into the field to buy watermelons by the pick-up truck or small trailer load. The peddlers fan out, selling Cherokee watermelons all over the Golden Triangle and west Alabama.

Given the nature of the work — raising watermelons is hard, back-breaking labor — it is natural to assume that at some point Johnny will give up the crop in favor of others that aren’t so labor-intensive.

Not a chance, Johnny says.

“Maybe as I get older, I’ll scale back. Maybe I’ll go to just five acres or something. But I can’t ever see just quitting. It would be an awful thing not to have a good watermelon on July 4th.”

Not grow watermelons?

The Southern summer wouldn’t sound the same.