Once upon a time, in the 1800s and early 1900s, there was a watermelon so desirable that farmers went to great lengths to prevent their crop from being stolen, and people went to great lengths to try to steal them. They were called Bradford watermelons, named after Nathaniel Bradford, who developed the unique breed treasured for its sweet flavor, spoon-tender flesh, dark green exterior and thin rind.
Those who grew Bradford watermelons often had armed guards patrol their crop at night to prevent men (who formed "watermelon clubs") from stealing the fruit. Still, theft was heavy, so farmers resorted to pumping unmarked watermelons full of poison and posted notices in their fields that said, "Pick at your own risk." People still picked, and when they got sick, the local doctors knew who the thieves were. Some of those thieves got so sick they died.
But the pickers weren't the only ones affected. As the video below from PBS' "The Mind of a Chef" reports, sometimes the farmers forgot which gourds were the poisoned ones. "It was not at all unusual to read newspaper stories of entire families being poisoned by watermelons that they themselves had poisoned."
In the 1880s, farmers turned to electricity as a solution instead. Thieves who tried to steal a watermelon got zapped by a lightning bolt. "There were more people killed in watermelon patches than in any other part of the agricultural landscape of America, with the exception of cattle rustlers," PBS reports.
Food magazine Lucky Peach listed some of the newspaper stories about the deaths:
An 1844 article reads: “At Salem, Ohio, five men have died from eating watermelons that had been drugged..." In 1900, six boys were poisoned and killed in a watermelon patch in Bluffdale, Texas. A county history text from Kansas notes: “1893. Neal Pinyerd. Accidentally killed in a watermelon patch near Denton, in August.” A line item in The Statistician and Economist from 1901 reads: “Cowboys in bloody fight over watermelon, Antelope Pass, Ariz.; 4 kill’d.”
So maybe it was a blessing of sorts when the desire for these tempting watermelons started to fade.
Going extinct ... sort of
Aside from the number of deaths the fruit inadvertently caused, the downside to Bradford watermelons was the aforementioned thin rind. It was great for pickling, but its softness made it less than ideal for shipping. (“A rind so soft, you could slice it with a butter knife,” some said.) By the early 1900s, watermelons were being produced with harder and thicker skins and rinds, which were more profitable because they could be stacked into railroad cars and shipped with little breakage.
While that may sound like the end of the line for Bradford watermelons, it turns out it was only a hibernation.
Resurrected for charity
Nathaniel Bradford lived in South Carolina, and his descendants stayed there over the years. His great grandson, Nat Bradford, who lives in South Carolina with his wife and five children, inherited his great grandfather's green thumb — and his obsession with watermelons.
He writes on his blog that while the Bradford watermelon was no longer widely cultivated, the Bradford family continued to plant seeds and grow it for themselves. What's interesting about this generation's efforts, however, is that Nat Bradford is using the watermelons for a good cause.
"My oldest 3 sons and I planted six rows of watermelons — 220 hills with 2 plants per hill for a total of 440 plants. If we had a perfect yield we would get one big melon per vine," he writes. "And our crop had better than a perfect yield! 465 big, beautiful watermelons were harvested off of 440 plants."
The Bradford's run an organization called Watermelons for Water, which uses the sale of Bradford seeds, watermelon and food products to raise funds to provide clean drinking water, via wells or medication, throughout the developing world. And with that haul of 465 watermelons, Bradford writes that they raised enough money to bring fresh water to 12,000 people.
"Watermelon sales have provided funding for the drilling of fresh water wells in Tanzania and Bolivia. Plus, our watermelon seeds provide a simple crop to cultivate which gives the people a huge, delicious melon full of naturally purified water," he writes in a mission statement.
It's nice to see something that was once a cause of death for too many people bring fresh water, which is so essential for life, to many more.