What is more refreshing on a blistering hot summer day than a big slice of cold watermelon? Mankind has been enjoying this sweet, juicy fruit for millennia – the ancient Egyptians and their Israelite slaves ate it (it says so in the Bible). It was introduced to Europe by Moorish invaders by the 13th Century and to North America by the 16th Century. And it was a popular food among the Nebraska pioneers.
“Watermelons were a delicacy for Nebraska settlers. When the watermelons were in season and ripe, they were a summer treat and a standard for the ten o’clock and three o’clock lunch. Some pioneer families even claimed to keep melons through the winter by stuffing them in haystacks.
In photographs of sod house families, watermelons are often seen as symbols of the bounty of the land. The Kem family posed for this photograph with their watermelons in the 1880s. Many years of good crops brought confidence to the settlers, and although many hard years followed, the settlers remembered the “remarkable crop of watermelons they raised that first Nebraska summer” for the rest of their lives. When Mrs. W. L. Downing wrote to the Nebraska Farmer in the 1970s, she reminisced about her first year living with her new husband in a sod house north of Stapleton, Nebraska. While her husband planted corn, Mrs. Downing “planted watermelons with a hand planter…Oh, those melons!” She remembered, “we had melons for everyone in the neighborhood.” (photos and text courtesy of the Nebraskastudies.org website)
More than a treat, on at least one occasion watermelons were the only thing standing between the pioneers and the Pearly Gates. Frank Čejda, who homesteaded in Colfax County in 1872, related this story:
“When we went to town with products or for provisions, it required a day and a half, that is half the night, and our food supply, while on the way, was a piece of bread and some hay for the horses. If we were obliged to stay in town overnight, we looked up some acquaintance or friend for lodging, for we did not have the means to stop in the hotel. During the first two years there was so little food that we could not supply our needs. I recall an incident in connection with our neighbor, Mrs. Kopac. Her husband, like other homesteaders, was away working in town, to buy supplies for his family. It was in the fall of the year, her provisions were gone, nothing was available but the melon patch. The poor woman lived on it during the whole melon season. She had a small baby to take care of, and grew so weak she could scarcely walk. She knew that all her neighbors were short of rations, so she did not even let them know of her condition, hoping for the arrival of her husband.” [from Rosicky (1929) – A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska]
As time went by and transportation improved, a market developed for large watermelon and muskmelon farms. The most productive of these farms were in sandy soils near river bottoms or in the Sandhills region of the state (my grandfather always grew better melons in his sandy backyard in Schuyler than we were able to grow on the farm). For Clarksonites, the nearest melon farm was between Madison and Norfolk on Highway 81. It was an impressive sight. Here’s an item from the September 6, 1923 issue of the Colfax County Press:
Last evening we had the occasion to visit Anton DeGroot’s big melon farm north of Madison and were certainly amazed to see the enormous crop. Melons of all varieties were seen all over the yard – a regular market place – with autos coming and going in numberless quantities. That day Mr. DeGroot disposed of about 1000 melons and since the opening of the season has been selling from 600 to 1000 melons every week. He also sold a big truck load of fine juicy melons which were taken to the Lincoln fair.
On September 23, Mr. DeGroot will hold his annual Free Melon Feast. This event will mark the opening of his “Irish Gray” melon patch. He promises to have ready for the feast the largest pile of melons ever seen by any one. In the meantime if you want to lay in a supply of real good melons, visit DeGroot, the melon man, four miles north of Madison.
A few years later, the Lincoln Star discovered Anton DeGroot. Here are some excerpts from their September 4, 1927 story:
Madison County Man Sells Tons of Watermelons Every Year From Land Once Considered Worthless
“Plum busted and in deep,” are the words which Anton DeGroot uses to describe his condition when he returned from South Dakota fourteen years ago… [He rented a bit of land in a large holding called Duncanmeade. Since then he has purchased] three fine eighties of choice land in the heart of Nebraska’s corn belt with the profits from a 40-acre watermelon patch located on the Meridian highway in Madison county and has acquired the title of “DeGroot, the Melon Man of Nebraska.” Making a success of the melon business on sandy loam soil, pronounced by residents of section as the poorest piece of land in Madison county, [DeGroot] has demonstrated what can be done with land which was regarded as worthless sandhills fifty years ago…
Anton DeGroot was the first “renter” in Madison County to buy an automobile. His neighbors thought he was plunging headlong into debt when he borrowed money to buy a Ford. But the Ford was not purchased for pleasure. Loading the car and trailer with melons Anton drove to neighboring towns in the late summer evenings and returned home in the quiet hours of night happy in the knowledge that his load was sold. Peddling melons in this manner for two seasons paid for the Ford. Wishing to discourage the De Groots in the first years of their venture on Duncanmeade some friends said once to Mrs. DeGroot, “If you are picking out a place on which to starve to death, you have surely picked a good one.” Years later when success seemed assured the Titian-haired wife of the melon man graciously came back at these same friends with, “Well, we’ve had a right jolly time starving to death at Duncanmeade.”
The first melon patch planted by Anton DeGroot years ago, was for the enjoyment of his family, friends and neighbors. But Anton was born and reared in the vicinity and, unknown to others, had been making a study of the possibilities of the soil. His first patch of melons planted for profit covered an acre and netted him $100 during the season. The next year he put in two acres and realized $400. He added experiment to experience and the luscious fruit produced at Duncanmeade today rivals that grown in the famous melon fields of Georgia and Texas. DeGroot’s melon patch in recent years covers from 35 to 40 acres. An average of 100 pounds of melon seed is planted by the melon man each spring. Despite the fact that the Nebraska melon season is only five months long at the best, compared with a season eight months long in the South, DeGroot’s melons average from 22 to 24 tons per acre, while Georgia and Texas melons run from 25 to 30 tons per acre. Cool weather and insect pests play havoc with a melon crop and only the closest attention at critical stages will bring the crop through to maturity. Strong winds sometimes shift the sand about and at such times, Mr. DeGroot says the ground must be worked over or the melons are lost.
The [40-acre] patch must be hoed twice and the vines laid carefully in rows before the cultivator is used. Three times over with the cultivator means that the melon patch requires more care than the same acreage of corn, but it yields infinitely more in returns. Favorite varieties of watermelons grown by Anton DeGroot are “DeGroot’s Special,” “DeGroot’s Wonder,” and “Red Heart Shipper.” “Irish Grey” Is another melon of super quality. Melon Day has become an established custom in Madison county and on that day Mr. DeGroot sells all melons for 10 cents each. Each fall he offers a prize of 50 melons to the person who shall guess nearest the number of melons sold at 10 cents each on “Melon Day.” The cash receipts determine the exact number disposed of. And the handling of the cash on “Melon Day” is no small problem… Toward the end of each season DeGroot’s second finger on his right hand becomes so sore and inflamed from thumping melons to determine their ripeness that he can hardly touch it. Making melons pay on impoverished soil by establishing a market in his own dooryard and thus eliminating transportation costs to scattered markets has brought success to Anton DeGroot and led to his being called “Nebraska’s Melon Man.”
Today, the 4th generation of DeGroots still runs DeGroot Orchards, growing watermelons (and over 22 varieties of apples) in the “once worthless”sandy soil north of Madison.
The 1927 Lincoln Star story noted that Anton DeGroot loaded up his melons into the back of a Ford and marketed them to nearby towns, paying off the loan on his car in 2 years. Likely he came to Clarkson on his sales trips. In my time, the “Melon Man” was Weldon “Butch” Rakowsky. Butch also had a melon farm in the area between Madison and Norfolk, and he came to Clarkson once or twice a week with a pickup truck full of watermelons and muskmelons. He would hang around by the pickup, chatting it up with the townsfolk, until he had emptied the truck or the stores closed with the 6 o’clock siren. This continued for many years (73, to be exact) – I remember my father-in-law coming home from the Gambles store with an armful or two of watermelons and muskmelons for a week’s worth of desserts.
Here’s an interesting story about Weldon Rakowsky that appeared in the Norfolk Daily News at the time of his retirement in 2006:
After 73 years of selling melons, it’s time to retire
By Tom Behmer | Posted September 16, 2006
Madison – Call it the end of an era.
For the past 73 years, Weldon “Butch” Rakowsky of rural Madison has been selling watermelons in the Norfolk area.
When the current season comes to an end, Rakowsky will hang up his hat.
“My neighbor said, ‘Butch, you’ll never quit selling melons. It’s in your blood. They’ll have to drag you out of the watermelon patch,’ ” Rakowsky said. Turns out, his neighbor was wrong.
Growing up about nine miles southeast of Norfolk, Rakowsky began raising melons with his father. Although his father never sold the melons, Rakowsky decided to begin raising and selling his own when he was 17 years old.
“I started here with a Model T Ford Coupe,” said Rakowsky, who now sells the melons out of the back of his Chevrolet pickup.
What began as a way to help support his family turned into a habit that Rakowsky couldn’t kick.
“A lot of years ago I had a family of five children, and I needed extra income,” he said after selling three $4 melons to a woman in front of True Value Hardware in Clarkson.
“It kind of grew on me,” he added, noting that the same melons he sold once would have gone for 20-25 cents each.
It grew on him to the point that he couldn’t miss a season of selling melons.
Although he can’t recall the exact year – perhaps 73 years of selling melons forge themselves into one bank of memories – there was a year when his son had to fill in because Rakowsky had fallen ill.
Even then, though, the elder Rakowsky spent a couple of days of his summer doing what he loved.
Although his son has begun helping him a little more with that manual labor, Rakowsky still claims to do most of the work. And, while insect and weed control have evolved over the years, one thing about maintaining melons has remained constant.
“You just have to continuously hoe, hoe, hoe,” Rakowsky said. “If you get rain, you have to hoe again.”
Over the years, he’s traveled throughout Northeast Nebraska – from Decatur to St. Edward – selling his melons.
“Wherever somebody wasn’t selling,” he said.
At one point in the early 1950s, Rakowsky even took out an ad in the newspaper to advertise watermelons for a dime with one condition – customers had to pick the melons themselves. That ad prompted customers to purchase 900 melons, netting Rakosky $90.
“Wow,” he said retrospectively.
As time has gone on, Rakowsky has cut back on how much he sells and how far he travels for a variety of reasons.
“The melons are getting heavier every year,” he said with a smile.
Aside from his physical limitations, Rakowsky says that another reason he has cut back is that the small farmer isn’t as abundant as he used to be, meaning that most people go to the store to purchase their melons.
But bigger grocery stores, he said, haven’t changed his selling methods at all – mainly for one reason.
“I haven’t seen any Norfolk melons in the stores,” he said. “They’re Texas melons now.”
Currently, Rakowsky only sells his melons one day a week in three area communities – Albion, Clarkson and Humphrey.
Considering his age, though, he hasn’t slowed down much.
Despite the years Rakowsky has spent in the fields – he also farms 160 acres of soybeans and corn – he says he doesn’t feel 90 years old. Judging by the reaction that some of his customers give him, he doesn’t look his age, either.
“I had one lady tell me, ‘You haven’t sold watermelons for 73 years. You’re not even that old,” he said.
In the late 1940s, shortly after Rakowsky started selling melons, he’d often bring Garold Lichtenberg, then a neighbor, with him. Lichtenberg, who is seven years younger than Rakowsky, looked up to his melon mentor at the time.
Today, Lichtenberg still has nothing but respect for Rakowsky, who will turn 91 on Halloween.
“He is really dedicated to his work,” Lichtenberg said. “He’s just a good, honest, old fella.”
As the years have gone by, Rakowsky has gotten to know many of his customers. Those customers have come to know Rakowsky as well.
In fact, the comment, “Bet you’ve sold melons longer than anyone in the world,” has become quite common from Rakowsky’s customers.
“I could have raised and sold melons longer than anyone in the world,” he said.
Next summer, aside from growing a few melons for his children and grandchildren, Rakowsky is not sure what he’ll do when watermelon season rolls around.
“I told my doctor that I was going to quit farming. He said, ‘What are you going to do, look at four walls?” said Rakowsky, who has been married for “only” 68 years. After 73 years selling melons, he’s earned it.
Weldon “Butch” Rakowsky celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife Marian in 2008. The Melon Man died on November 29, 2012 at the age of 97.
A final memory. One autumn evening in the 1960s the Clarkson Commercial Club threw a Watermelon Feed for the community. They parked in a huge truckload of watermelons on Main Street about where the library is located, and served free slices of watermelon to all comers. When it was all over they turned off the lights for the night but left the truck on the street, still with plenty of uneaten melons. Not satisfied with our free slices, my cousin and I sneaked back and each grabbed a melon, darted into the narrow space between two buildings, sat down, and finished them off. It was a mixed blessing to be sure – the joy of eating an entire watermelon was tempered later that night by the uncounted times I had to wake up out of a sound sleep and trudge to the bathroom to get rid of it.