NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
July 2, 1998
Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University
©1998 Plains Folk
Janet Dunlap Rathbun is some sort of princess, I guess, because she's the granddaughter of a Watermelon King. She lives in Rapid City, but I heard her tell about her grandfather, Jim Dunlap, at a historical meeting in Sioux Falls. Dunlap was the most successful and renowned of a group of watermelon farmers operating on the sandy bottoms and islands of the Missouri River early in this century.
People in South Dakota and neighboring states enjoyed Jim Dunlap's fine melons from 1908 to 1938. Besides raising melons, he was also the postmaster of Vermillion. He and his wife Abbie raised their nine kids in a house on Dakota Street facing the university campuswhich was convenient for one of them, Lelia, who operated a curbside stand selling melons for 25 cents apiece.
At least as early as 1912, Dunlap was shipping melons from Vermillion, 1,200 to the carload. According to newspaper accounts, in 1917 he had 18 acres of watermelons, but by the mid-1920s he farmed 145 acres. In the middle of September 1922, he advertised that he had 50,000 to 100,000 "extra fine melons left on field."
Ms. Rathbun has a postcard of a Dunlap Melon Day on 12 September 1926. It shows great piles of melons in a grove. On the back is the written legend, "27,000 melons piled. All sold by 5:00 p.m. Cut 4,000. Estimated crowd of 8-10 thousand people that day."
To attract customers to the farm, Dunlap would invite the whole countryside to a free melon feed. He asked that people spit their seeds into a bucket for planting in future years. Then people were invited to buy melons to take home$2 for as many as they could haul in an automobile.
A Dunlap daughter recalls that this sometimes brought out the worst in people. They took the seats out of their cars and stuffed the interiors with melons. The problem then was that the farm was in the river bottom, and the buyers had to drive out uphill; some cars lacked the power to carry the load out of the bottom. Undaunted, the greedy ones would unload some melons, pull up the hill, carry the melons up, reload, and head off across the country, riding low.
Watermelon culture was labor intensive. The hills were planted in a grid, spaced 9 feet each way. The fields had to be hand hoed and the runners hand placed as they developed. In the end, the Watermelon King himself did the harvesting. He walked the field, gauging ripeness by appearance and by sound, and cutting the stems. He was followed by laborers who gathered and stacked the melons in the grove.
Besides marketing on site, Dunlap shipped to towns throughout the region, especially to towns that had annual Melon Days promoted by local merchants. They contracted annually with Dunlap for carload lots.
Charity and thievery took a certain toll. Dunlap entertained many community groups school classes, Camp Fire Girls, Sunday schoolswith free feeds. The University of South Dakota football team had an annual ritual of raiding the Dunlap fields. This evidently was a pre-arranged event intended as a sort of initiation for new recruits. "About the time we were finished," one participant told a Dunlap daughter, "lights came on, trucks chased us and we had to leave in a hurry. This was an annual eventyour dad was a grand person."
Watermelons are a grand part of Great Plains culture. Ms. Rathbun recalls how the Oto and Missouri entertained Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery with watermelons, and how German-Russian immigrants put up their little round melons in brine. I'm partial to the Mennonite custom of a melon slice and an elephant ear, myself.
Ms. Rathbun would be happy to hear from folks with Great Plains watermelon memories, especially any having to do with her grandfather. If you send them to me at North Dakota State University, I'll pass them along.
Source: Tom Isern (701) 231-8339
Editor: Barry Brissman (701) 231-7866