Nat Bradford eased his pickup into a parking space at Moe Joe Coffee. He stepped out, straightening into a lanky, lean-faced guy in work-worn jeans and shirt, logoed visor and Blundstone boots, looking like what he is: a son of the soil. He had something for me.
Bradford dropped the tailgate, leaned in and wrapped his arms around his family’s past and future.
It was a watermelon the size of a toddler. Dark green, slightly ribbed along its oblong flanks, weighing about 30 pounds, a classic Bradford watermelon.
“This is for you,” said Bradford. “If I picked right, this will be the sweetest, best-tasting watermelon you have ever eaten.”
That night, my wife and I had watermelon for supper. We had to eat half of it just to get the rest into the refrigerator. The sweetness was superb, but it was the flavor that won out. The melon tasted like the watermelons I ate when I was a kid in the ’50s. That is the Bradford signature — a flavor of memories.
Big watermelons, big dreams
The Bradfords have been growing their watermelons for more than 170 years. In all those years, it’s doubtful they made enough from their melons to buy a new truck. Most of the melons were given away to friends and neighbors in Sumter, where the sandy soil is well suited for a melon patch.
Others did make money. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Bradford melons were sold commercially, as was seed to gardeners. Along came melons that were easier to grow, store and ship, pushing the big green melons back to family patches cared for by seed keepers who passed on their know-how and best seeds from generation to generation.
Bradford is the eighth generation in his line to take up the hoe. This time there’s more at stake than a good harvest. Bradford is sowing the seeds for his family’s future. He’s also determined that the Bradford watermelon will help to make the world a better place for thirsty people.
With two year’s experience growing melons part-time, the Bradfords are making a move. This summer, Nat and Bette Bradford and their five children will resettle from Seneca to Sumter. They are returning to the Bradford family farm to grow a life on 12 acres. They will raise watermelons and other crops sustainably, without irrigation and chemicals. They will sell some fresh watermelons and use the rest to make watermelon rind pickles, watermelon molasses and distilled spirits. Seeds from the best melons will be saved.
Money from fresh market sales will support Watermelons for Water. In its third year, the family’s foundation helps people in need of clean, dependable water. A project the Bradfords fund in Tanzania is well underway.
It’s a big dream, but Bradford watermelons are big melons.
Hanging on by a tendril
It’s hard to imagine a melon that immense becoming a melon of mystery. The Bradford went from being one of the most popular melons to near extinction.
By the 1850s, the Bradford watermelon had developed a reputation for sweetness and for its edible rind. The crisp meat of the melon, ranging from pale pink to deep red imbedded with white seeds, was a sugary treat to eat fresh. The high-sugar content also made it a favorite for making watermelon molasses. A thin white rind, which turns translucent amber in cooking, made delicious watermelon pickles. “They are very nice and will keep for two years,” writes Maria Massey Barringer, in Dixie Cookery, or How I Managed My Table for Twelve Years: A Practical Cook-Book for Southern Housekeepers.
A melon of such quality did not just appear. It was the offspring of good stock and careful breeding. Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford was part of agrarian bloom in the South. Farmer-experimenters shared seeds and sought to raise fruits, grains and vegetables that were both hardy and flavorful.
Agricultural societies, such as the Pendleton Farmers Society to which Thomas Green Clemson belonged, published journals detailing their efforts and observations. Nurseries offered catalogs of their stock. More than simple inventories, nurserymen described and critiqued plants.
The research made its way to the marketplace. The Bradford became a late-season market melon sold throughout the South. It was a popular melon, but flawed in the eyes of truck-produce shippers who sought to expand their sales to other regions. Breeders developed “boxcar melons” with “rhino-rinds” that made them tough enough to be stacked nine high without crushing. The bowling ball watermelons lumped in cartons at grocery stores are the latest varieties bred more for commerce than flavor.
The Bradford withered in popularity. Once grown in seven states, by 1925 it was grown only in South Carolina, where it hung on by a tendril. One of our nation’s founding watermelons would have been lost had it not been for one man.
Fathers and sons, and coming full circle
Nobody knows how he came to be called “Chief,” the man who was Nat Bradford’s great grandfather, Linwood Bonneau Bradford. “I’ve known about him from family stories, but I did not meet him,” says Bradford. Family stories tend to deal with family doings — births, deaths, marriages, vacations — and not about growing watermelons. Fortunately, someone wrote about Chief and his watermelons.
Clemson Extension agent Jim Eleazer turned out to be a skilled writer, having a book published, 50 Years Along the Roadside. For 25 years before World War II, Eleazer was the Sumter County agent, where he became friends with Chief, who grew his late-season watermelons as a hobby.
“Others couldn’t do much with late melons,” Eleazer wrote. “Diseases would get ’em. But Chief had been mixing and selecting his melons for years, and had gotten one with considerable resistance to late ills.”
The rest of Eleazer’s story dwells on Chief’s generosity, filling the agent’s car with watermelons. But for Nat Bradford, the few sentences about his great-grandfather being a seedsman would become a guiding principle for his own approach to growing plants.
Chief’s son Theron — Nat’s grandfather — would play another part. He would teach young hands to fulfill the dream.
“I called him ‘Paa Paa,’” says Bradford, who loved to work with his grandfather. They would plant and tend the vegetables and flowers. Nat, more than his four siblings, took to gardening. He soaked up what Paa Paa knew about making things grow.
[pullquote]The Bradford principles rest on abiding with natural forces, caring for the land and observing a divine plan for abundance.[/pullquote]
Nat, the one with the “green gene,” as his family calls a gift for growing, learned to plant at least a mile away from neighboring melons, to prevent cross-pollination. Save seeds from the very best melons, preserving growth traits. Don’t irrigate or apply chemicals; instead cultivate plants suited to local conditions. Care for the soil, and the soil will care for you.
Paa Paa’s son — Nat Bradford’s father — left the farm to become a doctor. When he returned he moved his family to the city of Sumter. A dermatologist, Dr. Bradford’s connection to farming was treating the consequences — cutting away skin cancers from sun-rayed hands, arms, cheeks and necks. His children, like so many others, moved farther away from farm communities. Nat, a solid student and able athlete, went off to college, looking for a future. He did not know it yet, but he would come full circle.
Landscape architecture and love
Clemson was a good fit for Bradford. He found a major that nurtured his passion for growing plants. He found sport that matched his enjoyment of teamwork. He found love.
“I tried a couple of majors, and then I took a course in horticulture, and I knew this is what I wanted to do,” says Bradford. “I was made for rowing and set my sights on the Olympics.”
While his dream of going for the gold faded, romance bloomed.
“My friends said he liked me,” says Bette Ritchie Bradford ’97. “I knew about him as the guy who always talked about his family’s watermelons.”
Before they could begin their lives together, Bradford had his degree to complete.
Majoring in landscape architecture, Bradford had an internship at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. There, he worked on his senior exit paper.
“I wanted to do it on the Bradford watermelons,” says Bradford. “I knew about Chief — we had Jim Eleazer’s book — but I didn’t know for sure much more.”
The gardens had a collection of old horticulture journals and catalogs. Bradford came across a document from the 1860s. It stunned him.
It was a vegetable critique, listing best choices for home gardens for that period. Bradford looked for watermelons. He found his name.
“Oh my gosh, I said to myself,” remembers Bradford “Could it be the same Bradford watermelon? What was the connection? Why didn’t we hear about this in the family growing up?”
Bradford began searching for more information. He hit a dead end.
“This was before Google,” says Bradford. “I couldn’t get online and see if there was some connection there or not.”
Life goes on, ready or not. Bette and Nat married. They started a family and Eco Art, a landscape design and installation business.
Twelve years passed. Meanwhile, Google blinked awake, ready to answer a world of questions.
In 2012 Bradford went to a sustainable agriculture conference in Greenville, reviving his quest. Was the watermelon mentioned in the 1860s the same one that his family had been growing?
“I knew in my heart of hearts it was, and now I had Google,” says Bradford. He didn’t find the answer. But he found someone who did.
David Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina, is an international expert on Southern food history, particularly agriculture journals, catalogs, cookbooks and seed lists.
“He had his own list of vegetables that shaped the food waves of America and, in particular, in the Southeast,” says Bradford. “I figured this guy must know something, and so I sent him an email and introduced myself.”
Bradford hit the send key after midnight. When he woke he had mail.
“I had an email waiting for me at nine in the morning with this big, ‘Oh my gosh. I’ve been looking for this watermelon for the past 10 years,’” recalls Bradford.
Shields knew the heritage of the Bradford melon, providing new information. “He had every one of my forefathers mentioned, and who had handed down to who (sic). I didn’t even have that information. It was really cool.”
[pullquote]Bradford learned his family watermelon was dropped from sight in 1922, when an Augusta, Georgia, seed company stopped carrying the seed.[/pullquote]
“I know our family never shared in any of the commercial success of the watermelon because it was always kept local,” says Bradford. “The seeds had spread, migrated north and then lost appeal.”
Shields wanted to know from Bradford one thing — the only thing that mattered. Were there any Bradford watermelon seeds?
Bradford had some, but he would need seed from other years to blend the genetics for top quality melons. He went to Sumter to search where Paa Paa may have saved the seed.
“I went back to his old house that winter and found where he was keeping his seeds. It was the last of our Bradford watermelon seeds other than the ones that I’d been keeping for the last 20 or so years. He saved those from 1990 to ’93, and that’s really when I took over to breed and keep the line going.”
Summer 2013, Bradford planted two small plots, one in Sumter, the other in Seneca. He couldn’t have picked a worse year. It was one of the wettest years on record. Vegetables rotted in fields. Gov. Nikki Haley declared a disaster for growers. Bradford was nervous, but he trusted in the ways passed on to him.
“We plant 12 seeds in a hill,” says Bradford. “Then when they first sprout up, we thin them down to about five or six of the strongest plants, and then from there we thin them down to two per hill. It sounds wasteful, but what we did, in effect, is we selected naturally for the two strongest plants, per hill, for a cold, wet summer in South Carolina. That’s something that modern agriculture doesn’t account for, doesn’t take into account in their food model. But it works. We had over 100-percent yield, 465 watermelons out of 440 plants, which was tremendous.”
Delighted by the abundant harvest, Shields expected to see South Carolina’s heritage watermelon return to markets and kitchens. Bradford, unfortunately, had made other plans for the melons. They were bound for a distiller in Alabama.
Shields is devoted to restoring the crops and foods that nourished and flavored the South, especially the South Carolina Lowcountry. There is hardly a Charleston chef who hasn’t consulted Shields on vegetables, grains and meats of the Carolina Rice Kitchen, the cooking and ingredients of coastal Carolina. Shields called a friend who could save the watermelons from leaving South Carolina.
The friend, founder-owner of Anson Mills, has restored the good name of flavorful and nutritious grits and revived Carolina Gold rice, a dietary and economic staple of the coast until rice cultivation collapsed in the Carolinas. Glenn Roberts persuaded Bradford that there was a far better destination than Alabama.
[pullquote]Bradford hauled a trailer carrying 300 melons to the Holy City. Fifty of the melons — their seeds to be saved — went to McCrady’s, Chef Sean Brock’s highly rated restaurant in Charleston.[/pullquote] Bradford still gets a kick out of the photo where the chefs and staff stacked the melons on the stairs to the kitchen. The pulp was boiled down to make watermelon molasses, the rind made into pickles.
The rest of the melons, selling for $20 apiece, sold out immediately.
Chef Forrest Parker drove from Greenville to buy Bradfords. In a comment connected to a digital news story about the melons, Parker raved: “I brought the first of these up to High Cotton Greenville from Charleston this morning. We tasted with the team this afternoon, and they were, in a word, revelatory. Completely fantastic. We all just sat there giggling like little kids. Just fantastic.”
Praise from chefs will help spread the word about Bradford melons. The local foods and farm-to-table trend continues to grow. Still, fresh watermelons sales are a seasonal and risky moneymaker.
Until they’re settled in Sumter, Bradford will continue his landscaping business. Like with most family farms, a job in town is essential to make ends meet. The goal is to go all in.
To have that happen, Nat and Bette Bradford will use the whole melon — from rind to seed.
The first of the Bradford family product line is watermelon-rind pickles. Other items soon will be available, including molasses and vinegar. Recently, High Wire Distillery in Charleston made a batch of watermelon brandy. Diversifying, Bradford collards will find a spot on the family farm. Other heritage produce is sure to follow.
“Here, a gift,” says Bradford, handing me a quart Mason jar of watermelon-rind pickles when I visited.
Grateful for the generosity, I counter with cash. Bette folds the money and nods thanks.
There are no sustainable farms without sustainable farmers.
Learn more about Bradford watermelons.
Peter Kent is a news editor and writer for Clemson’s Public Service Activities.