Odell’s Large White

In September of 2016, I chanced to meet Rodger Winn and his wife, Karen Shealy Winn, at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia. Naturally we got to talking about watermelons . . . and some that were presumed dead and gone. I showed them a photo of the long-lost Jumbo Triumph in the copy of Lloyd Bright’s pamphlet “World Record Giant Watermelons 1917–1987” that I’d been carrying around in my bookbag. That’s when Rodger shyly mentioned that Karen’s family, the Metzes, had been keeping a watermelon named Stoney Mountain for over a hundred years in what is known as the “Heart of the Dutch Fork” of central South Carolina. Their friend James Everett Kibler had identified the melon as the missing Odell’s Large White a year earlier. I grew curiouser and curiouser.

Back at home again a few days later, I received in the mail a couple of photographs of the Metze family heirloom and seeds of it to trial the following summer. The variety had been grown by Karen’s great-grandfather, John Quincy Metze, of Little Mountain, South Carolina, around 1900, and by his father before him. The family maintained the watermelon in Little Mountain (which is very stoney) in isolation until the 1980s and then nearly lost it when freezers thawed on two occasions and seeds were thrown out along with the other contents. Luckily the Winns were able to obtain viable seed from Glenn Long, Karen’s mother’s first cousin, who lived nearby. Glenn died a week after turning over the seed.

I’ve grown the variety in my garden from Rodger and Karen’s seed and can vouch for its quality: its sweet, juicy, somewhat coarse pink flesh is better than most. It has the shape, size, and furrowing of a Black Diamond, but the rind is gray rather than intensely dark green. The plant is a prolific producer of big lunkers that are a target of crows, who like to dive-bomb. Netting is the only thing that will dissuade them. They know a good melon, too.

Odell’s Large White is described in Fearing Burr’s The Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1863 and 1865) and in Burr’s Garden Vegetables (1866), and except for the change in seed color to white, the description fits perfectly: “Size very large, sometimes weighing sixty pounds; form round; skin gray, with fine green network spread over its uneven surface; rind nearly three-fourths of an inch in thickness; seeds large, grayish-black, and not numerous; flesh pale red; flavor fine; quality very good. Productiveness said to exceed that of most other kinds. This remarkably large melon originated with a negro man on the property of Col. A. G. Sumner [sic], of South Carolina. Its large size, and long-keeping quality after being separated from the vine, will recommend the variety, especially for the market.”

 

Odell’s Large White

I recently had an enchanting telephone conversation with Dr. Kibler, who lives about twenty-five miles from Little Mountain. “It’s been an interesting ride,” he told me. When visiting the Winns on August 10, 2015, he’d seen some very large, round, whitish watermelons growing in their perennial borders and immediately thought “Oh my God, could this be?” He grew sixteen hills of the variety the following summer from seed of a fifty-pounder grown by Rodger, and harvested a bumper crop that bred true to Burr’s description (except for the seed coat color). Kibler is an expert on Adam Summer (1818–1866) of Ravenscroft, the plantation where Odell’s Large White was born, and his brother William Summer (1815–1878). They operated Pomaria Nursery, which was one of the most prominent nurseries of the antebellum South (founded by William in 1840 and run by his heir until about 1890). Both were also distinguished journalists, editors, and nature writers. Adam grew a diversity of crops at Ravenscroft and experimented with plant breeding there; the plantation was also the site of the nursery’s tree stock farm. The distance between Ravenscroft plantation and the Metze farmstead (neighbor to the Shealy-Winn farm)? Less than six miles as the crow (or raven) flies.

Kibler is editing the Summer brothers’ garden calendar and carefully sifting through letters, ledgers, and tangential materials—much of which he saved from ruin or obscurity—that have already yielded correspondence between the brothers, Dr. William Draper Brinckle (Brincklé) (1798–1862), and Fearing Burr (1815–1897). Brinckle was a prominent seedsman and horticulturist, one of the founders of the American Pomological Society, and a friend of fellow-member William’s. In the 1850s, the Summer brothers exchanged grafting stock with Brinckle and sent him new fruits that they had bred. Brinckle wrote a piece on Odell’s Large White that appeared in Horticulture in 1857, and he was Burr’s informant on Odell’s as well as Downing’s (1857). The watermelon carries the name of Milton Odell (1826–1895), a farmer and good friend of Adam Summer’s. Odell sent a prize specimen for exhibition (probably to Augusta, Georgia) in October 1853 that weighed fifty-four pounds and received wide acclaim.

The Ravenscroft watermelon, described by Brinckle and featured in Burr, also got its start on the property of Adam Summer. Whereas the Odell’s Large White was apparently the result of a chance seedling, according to Dr. Kibler, the Ravenscroft was a product of Adam’s breeding program (probably between 1846 and 1850). And now Kibler has apparently found the missing Ravenscroft watermelon, kept by Mr. Carold Wicker, an elderly gentleman farmer and a friend of Kibler’s, who calls the watermelon Leitzsey (his mother’s family name). The Leitzsey homeplace is located about fourteen miles from Ravenscroft plantation, but they were once neighbors to Ravenscroft. The Kibler and Wicker families have attended the same church, located about six miles from Pomaria plantation, for about 250 years, and are related in a vast cousinage. Kibler describes Mr. Carold thus: “Quite a character and legendary locally as a curmudgeon, who in comparison would make Wendell Berry look like a cross between a Monsanto executive and Elton John.”

To paraphrase Dr. Jim, “Finding both watermelons less than fifteen miles from Ravenscroft, where the melons originated over a century-and-a-half ago, is testimony both to the strong farm traditions of the area and to the stamina of the melons themselves.” I know we’ll hear more from him about the Odell’s and the Ravenscroft. I can’t help wondering: Who was the African American man associated with the remarkably large Odell’s melon? Kibler says, “There were several free black families associated with the Summer family living nearby, all of whom were intermarried, so the man Brincklé describes was not necessarily one of Adam’s slaves.”