Archive for Thursday, August 24, 2000

Watermelon Festival has a rich heritage

August 24, 2000

Frances Lawhead said hopeful motorists still pull off busy 83rd Street to stop at her garage.

The motorists remember the garage as the vegetable stand it was a decade ago, when its now dusty white bins offered fresh corn, tomatoes, green beans, cantaloupes and watermelons.

The Lawheads' was just one of the local truck farms that were commemorated when organizers chose to rename DeSoto Days the DeSoto Watermelon Festival.

Long before DeSoto entered the metro area's consciousness as the nearest community to the proposed Wonderful World of Oz Theme Park, and even before the Army chose to build the Sunflower Ordnance Plant on 9,065 acres south of town, city residents knew DeSoto as a place that provided a slice of relief from summer heat.

Kansas River bottomland, fed by the grainy alluvial wash from the distant Rocky Mountains, produced something special, Lawhead said.

"This valley from Manhattan raises the best watermelon in the world," she said. "Evidently, it has something to do with the sandy soil."

In the pre-war decades, truck farms like the one owned by Lawhead's father, Harvey Couch, lined the bottomland hugging the river. In those days, local farmers would deliver truckloads of melons to Kansas City, Mo.'s, River Quay market, Lawhead said.

Cantaloupes start to ripen in mid-July, Lawhead said. The first watermelons mature about three weeks later. Harvesting meant stoop labor in the summer's dog days.

"We picked every day three to four weeks straight," Lawhead said. "Then the stragglers would come on. The later ones would be smaller and less flavorsome."

Like all farmers, the local produce growers were at the mercy of nature. Both too much and too little rain could be a problem, Lawhead said.

"Put too much rain on watermelon, and they lose flavor," she said. "Put rain on cantaloupe when they're ripening, and it cracks them all to pieces."

Faced with the possibility a late freeze or disease could wipe out a crop, the truck farmers adapted.

Unlike her father who limited his efforts to watermelon and cantaloupes, Lawhead and her late-husband, Charles grew a variety of crops - greenbeans, sweet corn, tomatoes, onions, pumpkins and squash.

"We got smart; we diversified," she said of the couple's farm.

In the 1950s, truck farmers also began to diversify their marketing practices. Like the Lawheads, they opened their own roadside vegetable markets, sold to grocery stores and to other produce stands.

They also built up their land to make it less vulnerable to flooding. When rising water did threaten, neighbors pitched in to help.

"I remember one year when all the growers came to help us sand bag," she said. "We used to always pull together - more than we do today. Everybody was fighting to make a living.

"We had 20 acres of onions out one year we picked and hand dried, because we thought the field was going to flood. As it turned out, it didn't flood. That was all right, but we sure smelled like onions around here until they dried out."

Nothing could save the truck farms in 1951, when the Kaw overflowed its banks after incessant and record rains.

"You just buckled up your belt and prayed hard," she said of the flood's affect on the local truck farmers. "A lot of guys got work in the city, cleaning up after the flood. They'd take any work, really."

Truck farming is a way of life that has largely disappeared. In today's economy, it is too labor intensive. The river bottoms are now planted to corn and soybeans, crops that a single farmer - with the aid of modern equipment - can plant, cultivate and harvest.

"Help is too hard to get," Lawhead said. "The work's too hard for the younger generation. School kids can make more money working in the city."

But it is a way of life that remains in her blood. Everyday, Lawhead watches the weather and muses on how it would affect crops.

This year's hot weather was a missed opportunity, Lawhead said.

"It would have been an excellent watermelon year," she said.

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