Water Valley’s First Watermelon Carnival

The Watermelon Carnival is Water Valley’s most prized annual celebration. An estimated 20,000 people attend the various events, always set the first weekend in August. The first carnival was held on Thursday, August 27, 1931. At that time, the entire nation was in the grip of the depression. In Water Valley, a bank had failed, the railroad had pulled out, and unemployment was high. Local businessmen were concerned about the spirit of the townspeople, so they decided to host a carnival to boost morale. The Watermelon Carnival consisted of a parade, a pageant to name the carnival queen, and a formal ball. Festivities were repeated for nine consecutive years, and then halted with the outbreak of World War II. The Watermelon Carnival lay in dormancy until 1980, when it was successfully revived. This account of the first carnival appeared in vol. 20, no. 4 of the Illinois Central Magazine.

The weather man predicted rain; yet early Thursday morning, August 27th, cars began arriving in Water Valley, Mississippi, for the Watermelon Carnival, the crowd continuing to grow until 12,000 to 20,000 persons could be counted. All wore holiday clothes and entered into the spirit of the day. C.R. Pitts, manager of the Yalobusha Democrat, presented the Watermelon Carnival idea to the people; then the Water Valley Junior Chamber of Commerce voted to sponsor the Carnival, and, receiving the cooperation of other civic organizations and private citizens, has made the Watermelon Carnival the outstanding attraction in North Mississippi, embodying a program which is unexcelled in beauty and originality.

Ever since Yalobusha County has been settled watermelons have been raised on the farms. Each farm had a small ‘patch’ of watermelons for private use. Occasionally a few choice melons were brought to town in the farm wagon and offered for sale on the streets. Only in recent years have melons been produced for outside markets.

The production of watermelons in this section has been a gradual growth until in 1930 more than 100 carloads of watermelons were shipped by rail from Water Valley and many more were transported by trucks. Water Valley melons are known for their superior flavor. The sandy loam, found in the hills of Yalobusha County, is especially adapted to the production of watermelons. The land is thoroughly broken and laid off in “hills” eight feet apart. Each hill 18 fertilized. If barnyard fertilizer is used, the fertilizer is placed under the hill during the winter or long enough in advance of planting so that the fertilizer is thoroughly decomposed and will not heat. When this method is used, the hills are marked by pegs so that the seed may be planted on top of the fertilizer in the hill. Planting takes place as soon as the danger from frost has passed. Cultivation consists of ordinary plowing and hoeing, to keep the ground loose and to destroy weeds and grass, care being taken not to injure the roots or vines. When the vines have attained a sufficient growth, the crop is “laid by”, and at maturity the vines cover the field solidly from hill to hill.

Some of the varieties of melons planted in Yalobusha County are Renter’s Wonder, Texas Jumbo, Klecky Sweet, Stone Mountain, Irish Gray, Honey Dew, Halbert’s Honey, Lem Green and Schockler; and some of the principal growers are W.E. Walker, Joe Holt, Jim Hayles, Will Hayles, Fred McCracken, W.0. Champion, Charlie Goodwin, Ernest and Joe Stone, Clarence Hervey, Dixie Davis, Robert and Ben King. Ten acres is considered a big field for one man. The average yield per acre is about 30,000 pounds. Prices range from 33 1/3 cents to $1.00 per hundred pounds, varying according to the season and the grade of melons.

When the melon is ripe, the ‘curl’ which grows out of the stem dies. One may judge of the melon’s condition by the sound brought forth by thumping it with the finger. A melon pulled green never ripens. A prime melon pulled when ripe will usually be in good condition for ten days or two weeks, without extra care, and will keep indefinitely in cold storage.

The Carnival Program “The carnival program on August 27th was ushered in by the noise of many instruments as the crowd began gathering. The Holly Springs’ band concert was the social program’s first number. Kermit Cofer was master of ceremonies and introduced the principal speaker of the morning, Congressman W.M. Whittington of Greenwood, Mississippi, who addressed the farmers in keeping with the spirit and intent of the occasion. During the day thousands visited the melon display where the largest melons produced in this section as well as other farm products were to be seen. There were ten melon and garden display booths that aroused the admiration of the throngs.

At 1:30 o’clock in the afternoon talks were made by Congressman Jeff Busby, H.J. Schweitert (general agricultural agent of the Illinois Central system) and L.A. Olsen, extension director of the A. and M. College at Starkville. At 3 o’clock a baseball game between the Jolly Cabs of Memphis and a home team, with Water Valley winning 5 to 2.

At 4 o’clock an important part of the carnival was the cutting of 1500 ice-cold melons. The melons were passed out over the long tables to the thousands. The melons were purchased by the Junior Chamber of Commerce from the many growers in the County. A number of special varieties were donated.

At 7 o’clock one of the most elaborate parades ever seen in Mississippi proceeded from Blount Street north to Court Street around the City Park and returned to Blount Street in the following order: mayor’s car of welcome; official decorator’s car; Sardis Drum and Bugle Corps; 155th Mississippi Infantry, Company G, Aberdeen, Mississippi; Captain E. L. Sykes in command; Curtis E. Pass Post, American Legion, and visiting ex-service men; American Legion float; W.S. Turnage Drug Company’s decorated car; Memphis Band and Orchestra, Oakland Mississippi; merchants’ float; Kraft Cheese Company’s decorated car; McCullar-Suratt float; Indian Tribe on move; T.P.A. float; R.L. Mann’s Floral Garden float; Chapman Service Station float; decorated car of Mrs. John Dalton; Memphis Illinois Central System Band; ‘Queen’s float’, queen and princesses; decorated car of Lee’s Hardware and Furniture; Water Valley Rotary Club float; Oak Grove Dairy float; U.S. Post Office float; O’tuckolofa Consolidated School float; Will Henry’s thirty piece band; United Daughters of the Confederacy’s float; Henry Ford’s special car; Martha and George Washington; W.B. Moorhead and Company’s float; Peoples’ Wholesale float; decorated car Water Valley Hospital; float of three banks; float of Grand Theatre; two floats of Hendricks Machine Shop; Babe Ross’ famous clown band of fifteen pieces; Ford caravan headed by their special built radio and victrola on truck followed by sixteen latest models of Ford cars and trucks.

One of the most impressive floats in the parade and one which was as typically southern as the watermelon festival, was the float which was entered by the Daughters of the Confederacy. This float represented ‘The Old South’, a picturesque old carriage, of the antebellum period, which was covered with 1500 home-grown, old-fashioned red and white (the Confederate colors) hollyhocks! B. Leland, a veteran of the War Between the States, who is the father of Mrs. A.D. Caulfield (the Illinois Central’s superintendent’s wife), represented a plantation owner of the sixties; his posing, in character, made the U.D.C. float seem a reality. Mary Lynne Brown was a true picture of early Confederate womanhood; while Charlotte Blackston, daughter of Engineer and Mrs. H. R. Blackston, was a dainty reproduction of a young lady of our revered ‘old South’. The red-and-white hollyhock covered antebellum carriage, entered as a float by the members of the local U.D.C., was drawn by two bay horses, and was preceded by four ‘outriders’, one of whom–‘ Uncle’ Frank McFarland, a negro veteran of the War Between the States–had enlisted with his master and had remained in active military service under the Confederate flag with his master during those memorable days.

The Illinois Central platform was decorated to represent a large watermelon patch (sand, vines and watermelons being used for the natural effect); where, after the parade, Mrs. E.L. McVey directed a beautiful pantomime composed of more than fifty little children who represented flowers, butterflies, birds (large ones, of course) and happy children disporting themselves in the watermelon patch. The fairy pantomime was followed by the crowning of the Watermelon Carnival’s Queen, who was Eleanor Houston, daughter of Chief Dispatcher and Mrs. L.S. Houston of the Illinois Central System.

After presenting a silver loving cup to the Watermelon Carnival Queen, Miss Houston, and as the conclusion of the coronation, Edwin Blackmur (president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce), with the queen, led the grand march for the street dance, followed by ten princesses of the. Watermelon Carnival. Each princess was accompanied in the grand march by a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. The big Watermelon Camival program closed with a magnificent display of fireworks including six beautiful bet pieces, one of which portrayed a watermelon, twelve special arena pieces, and fifty-two aerial bombs, the display being handled by G.L. Gafford, chief clerk to the Illinois Central Superintendent.

Tomato Aspic

Women in any given society will assemble to sip, nibble and talk about anything they want and anyone who isn’t there. Speaking as an ardent fan of my opposite sex, I’ll be the first to say that the world is a much better place due to distaff parliaments. Civilization itself depends on feminine attentions if not to say machinations, and it’s usually in these gaggles that the most uninhibited deliberations between our sisters take place. Men should understand and appreciate this phenomenon, since when it comes to gossip, the trickle-down theory actually works; you may not know that your boss is sleeping with your secretary, but it’s a fair bet that you have a better chance of finding out if your wife does. And God help you if you’ve been shtupping her as well.

The food served at more formal klatches of this type is delicate, often to the point of fussy. This is no place for pork chops: small servings of carefully prepared, light offerings are the rule. You’ll find salads with cold seafood or chicken, pasta or seasonal vegetables alongside the obligatory crustless geometric sandwiches. Sweets, with the exception of a killer cake, are dainty and plentiful as are the drinks. I’ll not go so far as to swear that food is primarily intended to buffer the effects of a Bloody Mary luncheon—that would put my life in danger—but the theory has been broached. In the South, pimento and cheese, chicken salad, deviled eggs and pound cake (lemon or poppy seed particularly) at a ladies’ luncheon seem mandatory now, but it wasn’t so long ago that holding one without serving tomato aspic would imperil your membership in the 20th Century Club.

Because of recoil from the foods of the Sixties, congealed salads (like fondue) have become not only passé but proscribed. This reaction is somewhat justified; on any given month between say 1960 and 1975 in any magazine devoted to food, you’ll find tons of recipes for gelatin involving practically every ingredient in the kitchen, more often than not canned fruit, citrus Jell-O and mini marshmallows. But we shouldn’t abandon a good recipe because it’s showing its age, and this is a great dish: light, savory, easily prepared and attractive. Let’s hope tomato aspic is going through a trial period in popular tastes before it becomes not so much a novel legacy but a standard for our tables.

Tomato Aspic

3 cups tomato juice
2 packets unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons finely minced white onion
2 tablespoons finely minced celery
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce to taste

Warm tomato juice, add gelatin and dissolve. Stir in lemon juice, black pepper, Worcestershire and hot sauce (I like Crystal), add vegetables and chill until partially set, spoon or pour into individual (5 oz.) lightly oiled molds and chill until set. Unmold and serve with cold sides such as boiled eggs, green beans, or asparagus.


Salisbury Steak

When I was growing up in small-town Mississippi in the 1960s, TV dinners were a treat, something different from home-cooked, not better, really, just exotic, some indication that outside the stagnant backwater of Bruce, Mississippi, the world was actually making some degree of progress, if only in convenience foods. For a little over a dollar we could buy fried chicken, meatloaf, or turkey and dressing with whipped potatoes and neon peas in a compartmentalized space-age metal containers and eat them on the fold-away TV tables. I remember doing exactly that the first time I saw “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” I was eight years old.

My favorite was the fried chicken, but brother Tom’s was Salisbury steak. That’s about as close as he could get to a hamburger. It’s named for James Salisbury, one of those impressive food faddists of the late 19th century whose ranks include Kellogg, Post, and Mary Grove Nichols (by far the coolest of this three.) Salisbury advocated the same low-carb diet as Tarnower and Atkins, one known now as paleo, his being very much meat-centered. Salisbury’s version of a “lean beef cake,” calls for meat “from the centre of the round” procured from “well-fatted animals that are from four to six years old,” but any lean is good.

For a pound of beef, add a quarter cup bread crumbs, work in a squirt or two of ketchup. Don’t over-work the meat. Form into no more than four cakes about an inch thick. Cook slowly, in a low oven to medium well, season with pepper and salt. While this recommendation doesn’t fit the doctor’s diet, my optimal serving of Salisbury steak requires mushroom gravy (a light one) and creamed potatoes with a little tun of butter.


A Beginner’s Guide to Sardines

Most people turn their noses up at sardines. Why? Well, they smell bad, for one thing, but that’s not the main reason; lots of people eat stuff that smells bad, especially when nutrition isn’t particularly a key consideration. No, the reason people don’t eat sardines is because in this neck of the woods they’re considered trashy, so trashy that you’ll not find a single sardine recipe in any of Jill Connor Browne’s otherwise excellent culinary compilations. That girl’s got a lot of class.

Sardines aren’t a specific kind of fish as much as they are a type of fish; many species of small herrings are caught, canned, and marketed as sardines. Ounce for ounce, sardines rank among the most nutritious foodstuffs in the world: they’re chock-full of calcium, potassium, vitamin D and all the “good fats”; one can, about three and a half ounces drained, has less than 200 calories. They’re also (like most canned fish) ridiculously cheap, less than $2 a serving.

If you want to try sardines for the first time, get a can of Port Clydes (in oil) and drain them; use a colander if you feel the need, but do not rinse them with water. Instead, sprinkle them with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice and just a bit of kosher salt, set them in a sealed container in the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled and eat them with sour gherkins, raw celery and onions, and have your favorite beer with them. Dill toast is wonderful alongside, but rye Melba will suffice, and saltines of any sort will do any time at all.


Faulkner at Churchill Downs

That Faulkner wrote about the Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated should come as no surprise, nor that his essay “Kentucky: May: Saturday” is not only about what happened on May 7, 1955, but a masterly  examination of the Derby as a quintessential American event and of the sport of kings itself.

The assignment was his second from the fledgling Sports Illustrated (founded by Henry Luce the previous August), his first being an exercise in dissonant apposition. That January Faulkner attended his first hockey game, one between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, and in “An Innocent at Rinkside” wrote: “It was filled with motion, speed. … discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”. The poetry of hockey eluded the Mississippian.

James Street, the Mississippi minister-turned-journalist-turned novelist, was given the original 1955 Derby assignment, but Street died the September before the race. Sports Illustrated offered Faulkner $2000 plus a week’s expenses, including a $100-a-day chauffeured limousine; the kicker was a $500 bonus if the piece turned out to be as exceptional as they hoped from the Southern Nobelist. No fool he, Faulkner accepted immediately and after a trip to New York in April and the first days of May, he left the city for Louisville, where his publisher Don Klopfer sent him a note to the Brown Hotel informing him that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for A Fable. “It’s an easy 500 bucks for you,” Klopfer write, “and we’re all mighty pleased, although I don’t suppose you give a damn.” On the contrary, Faulkner, who considered A Fable his masterpiece, was quite pleased and those visiting the handsome, nattily-attired writer in his suite found him puffing on a briarwood pipe, smiling.

Far from rinkside in Madison Gardens, at Churchill Downs Faulkner was in his element; his father Murry had been a livery-stable owner in Oxford, he enjoyed riding as well as fox hunting and he had a fine eye for horseflesh. In an interview with The Courier-Journal, Faulkner reflected, “It’s interesting that you have tried to train blood and flesh to the perfection of a machine but that it’s still blood and flesh.” During his stay in Louisville Faulkner was accompanied by SI’s turf writer Whiney Tower, who was instructed “to try to see that our guest did not become so preoccupied with the available whiskey that he neglected his assignment.” To ensure against that seemingly likely possibility, Faulkner was to turn over 300 words each evening of their weeklong stay in Louisville for Tower to wire via Western Union to New York.

Tower, a legend in his own right and the nephew of Lexington horse-farm owner C.V. Whitney, found Faulkner to be “thoroughly professional”. “His knowledge of horses and their bloodlines went way back,” Tower wrote, “and I think the best part of his week may have been the day we skipped away from Louisville to visit farms in Lexington. At Claiborne Farm, he was very much taken with Nasrullah, later to become one of the all-time great stallions, and sire of, among others, Bold Ruler, another champion sire. But no horse he saw in Lexington that long day entranced Faulkner nearly so much as a beautiful gray, Mahmoud, an Epsom Derby winner, then 22 years old and galloping effortlessly in his paddock at the C.V. Whitney farm. On the way back to Louisville, Faulkner napped, but near Frankfort, he awoke suddenly, nostrils twitching above his mustache. “He sat straight up, rolled down his window and inhaled deeply,” Tower wrote. “‘I thought so!’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t mistake that smell. There’s a distillery damn close to here.’”

As race day approached, Faulkner became more fascinated by the activity at Churchill Downs. Before his first trip to the press box, Tower wrote, Faulkner “asked in an excited schoolboyish way” whether he might meet acclaimed sportswriter Red Smith. The two proceeded to handicap the day’s races. Tower noted that Smith “relied mostly on past performance” in determining his bets, while Faulkner favored the conformation of each horse.

“Kentucky: May: Saturday” ran in the May 16, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated. Written in five parts to accentuate the build-up of tension and excitement that exploded in the two-minute race that had drawn over a hundred thousand people from all over the world, the essay was not so much about the race itself as a—somewhat rambling; it is Faulkner, after all—meditation on what the Derby means, a piece so subjective that Faulkner didn’t even mention how “Swaps”, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, had held the lead from the start and won despite a thrilling challenge from “Nashua”.

“THREE DAYS BEFORE”, framed the event in historical perspective: “This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too — the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival — Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod’s and Harbuck’s Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.” He linked this past history with his own present: “And knew Stephen Foster and the brick mansion of his song; no longer the dark and bloody ground of memory now, but already my old Kentucky:​ home.”

“TWO DAYS BEFORE”, he turned to the race: “Even from just passing the stables, you carry with you the smell of liniment and ammonia and straw — the strong quiet aroma of horses. And even before we reach the track we can hear horses — the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furious and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excrescent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it, in the conventional posture of speed — and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that moment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.”

“ONE DAY BEFORE” looked back to former races: “It rained last night; the gray air is still moist and filled with a kind of luminousness, lambence, as if each droplet held in airy suspension still its molecule of light, so that the statue which dominated the scene at all times anyway now seems to hold dominion over the air itself like a dim sun, until, looming and gigantic over us, it looks like gold — the golden effigy of the golden horse, ‘Big Red’ to the Negro groom who loved him and did not outlive him very long, Big Red’s effigy of course, looking out with the calm pride of the old manly warrior kings, over the land where his get still gambol as infants, until the Saturday afternoon moment when they too will wear the mat of roses in the flash and glare of magnesium; not just his own effigy, but symbol too of all the long recorded line from Aristides through the Whirlaways and Count Fleets and Gallant Foxes and Citations: epiphany and apotheosis of the horse.”

“THE DAY” began ruminating about the horse, which once moved man’s body and goods, but now moved only his money. Food-supplying animals would, he prophesied, eventually become obsolete, but not horses, since they provide mankind with “something deep and profound in his emotional nature and need, a sublimation, a transference: man with his admiration for speed and strength, physical power far beyond what he himself is capable of, projects his own desire for physical supremacy, victory, onto the agent—the baseball or football team, the prize fighter. Only the horse race is more universal…”

“4:29 P.M.” is emotionally drained, an analytic response to spent anticipation: “We who watched have seen too much… we must turn away now for a little time, even if only to assimilate, get used to living with, what we have seen and experienced.” He focused on the dispersal of the crowds and the disgruntlement of the losing backers. “And so on. So it is not the Day after all, it is only the eighty-first one.”