I interrupt this regularly scheduled program for this important story about watermelons.
“I feel like the Queen of the Winter Prom,” wrote my mother-in-law Diana, “or the drum majorette, or at least Vanna White. If nothing good ever happens to me again, this will have been enough.”
What on earth, I wondered, has provoked my mother-in-law to begin an email like this? The answer: Crimson Sweet watermelons and a (now deceased) man named Dr. Charles V Hall.
Anyone who knows Diana and her son (my husband) Jesse, knows that watermelons are a frequent topic of discussion. They grew and sold watermelons as a family, with all profits going toward my husband’s college education, for which I’m eternally grateful.
When Diana was just 15 years old, she remembers paying a “fortune” to buy just a few seeds of the new-at-the-time watermelon variety called Crimson Sweet. These succeeded (or just seeded) beyond her wildest dreams. They were, in her words, “sweet as honey, with tiny, tiny seeds, a uniform size of 25 pounds, high production, block round, much easier to pick than all the older varieties.”
This is where Dr. Charles V Hall comes into the picture. He’s the one at Kansas State University who worked a decade to cross three different varieties to develop his Crimson Sweet melon. “I wanted a melon that was wilt resistant, and I like its general appearance (a striped, refrigerator sized melton) and its sweetness,” Hall said.
So naturally in 1971, when Diana was a student at KSU in need of a summer job, she wanted to work for Dr. Hall breeding watermelons. She got the job, after much persistence. Here is her description of that memorable summer.
It was the year that Dr. Hall released the Allsweet watermelon variety— a long-striped melon with even higher sugar content than the Crimson Sweet. We had a long process of fermentation and what-not when we collected seeds and dried them. The day we had all of them ready, Dr. Hall put them in a leather bag. He had all of the people present, and some other professors had come out. And he told us that we were holding all of the seeds that would go forth and dominate the whole commercial and gardening varieties in America in a few years time. It was a holy moment. The hairs on my forearms stood straight up.
The story doesn’t end there.
Once out of college and as far back as the late 1980’s, when the Graber family was “famously in the watermelon business,” Diana began to notice that the Crimson Sweet variety had kind of deteriorated, including wide variations in size and in rind thickness, and the color was not as bright green in the stripes. So who you gonna call? Why Dr. Hall of course!
Here is the story, again in Diana’s words:
In 1971 I learned that every 4 or 5 years, Dr. Hall would take some of the original Crimson Sweets seeds from cold storage, grow a big patch of them, and send them out to the growers so that their product line would be more like the original. So I wanted to see if I could get some of the purer seeds to plant in my little patch next summer. I wrote a general shout-out to the Horticulture department at KSU, and got an email with Dr. Hall’s contact information…The minute he said hello, I knew it was his voice.I started by telling him my whole history and life in the watermelon business, and the summer of 1971. And then he said he remembered me, and I had the best fertility rate of anyone that summer, better than the Doctoral students, and that’s true, I did. He confirmed that he would release new seeds to the growers every 4 to 5 years. But he also said that project remained the property of K-State, and they did not continue that release program. I had at least hoped that he could tell me which growers were getting the new seeds. So my hopes were dashed.
Then, he said, ‘But I had some of those seeds in cold storage, and a few years ago I had a guy I know, my doctor, raise a bunch of those in isolation, and got half of those seeds, put them back into storage. I’d be glad to give you some of those if you send me an addressed envelope.’ Wow. Wow. Wow.
We talked about the old varieties and he asked what my experiences with them had been, and I got to say, over and over again, ‘Dr. Hall, the Crimson Sweets came along and just revolutionized the whole market’, and he would titter.
I told Dr. Hall that when I spot an Allsweet out in the stores or farmers’ markets, I pat one on the head and say, ‘I knew your Grandmother.’ And he laughed like crazy, and said, ‘oh, that’s great.’
You can read more about Dr. Hall here: https://www.areawidenews.com/story/1991972.html
And lucky for us, we have a watermelon seed to plant next summer!