The Story Behind the Sweetest Watermelon in the South
Sumter, South Carolina, farmer Nat Bradford mounts a delightful comeback for this sweet heirloom crop.
It was just 7:36 on a Sunday night at Motor Supply Company Bistro in Columbia, South Carolina, but the Bradford Watermelon Salad with shaved fennel, arugula, and toasted hazelnuts had already sold out.
"It's so good," whispered a diner at the bar, who'd snagged the last plate. But she didn't mean to brag. She just couldn't help marveling at the watermelon's sweetness, its delicate texture and edible rind like a cucumber.
Meanwhile, the run on specials prompted the bartender to regale customers with the tale of the Bradford melon. His story involved a prisoner of the Revolutionary War named John Franklin Lawson, who scored a wedge of watermelon as a water source on a pirate ship bound for the West Indies. It tasted so good that he saved the seeds for his eventual return to the States. Around 1840, Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford crossed the Lawson watermelon with the Mountain Sweet, and the Bradford was born.
"How many people do you get to believe that?" a customer asked, teasing the bartender.
Sure enough, the Bradford watermelon's epic history could have faded into obscurity. The melon's thin skin kept it from being shipped, so it fell out of favor with commercial growers, who preferred types with sturdier rinds.
Then along came Nat Bradford, the great-great-great-grandson of that watermelon's developer.
Today, visitors to Bradford's farm-house in Sumter, South Carolina, a sleepy town about 45 miles from Columbia, have to step over watermelons covering the front porch. It's all melons all the time in late harvest as he decides which ones to save seeds from and which ones to process as pickled rinds or red molasses (an old-fashioned recipe that took him two years to perfect). Every year before harvest, he allots just about 500 melons that get snatched up during presale.
He might also deliver some of the watermelons to restaurants within a few hour's drive. But otherwise, these fruits can't be shipped, their elusive nature making them even more special.
"Last year, the first folks who showed up drove down from Long Island, New York, loaded up 15 melons, took a few pictures, turned around, and drove back," Bradford says. "I'm not sure what they did with them… They wanted to be part of the story, which is humbling."
Even if you're not able to travel there, you can grow your own via seeds sold on the website.
Growing up, Bradford remembers his family planting just a small patch in the front yard and saving watermelon seeds in Mason jars. His father worked as a dermatologist and was the first generation to deviate from the farming business.
Bradford thought about farming after high school in the early 1990s, but he didn't know about many career possibilities in heirloom or organic agriculture at the time, so he went into landscape architecture instead.
Then in 1997, he discovered an 1850s book heralding the Bradford watermelon as one of the finest. "Could that be our melon?" he wondered. The thought floated in the back of his mind until 2012, when David Shields, a food historian and professor at the University of South Carolina, confirmed that fact. Bradford knew he had to return the melons to market.
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Living in Seneca at the time—and running his landscape business—he just needed a little encouragement to return to the family land. Shields introduced him to heritage-grain guru Glenn Roberts, through whom he met acclaimed chef Sean Brock. The staff at one of Brock's restaurants at the time, McCrady's, helped process the first batch of watermelon pickles. "I don't even know these people," Bradford recalls thinking. "This is a whole different world."
He also added a charitable arm, Watermelons for Water, to his first growing season, donating proceeds from that harvest to fund hand-dug wells for small farmers in Bolivia. "It was important to do, and people expected it," he says of reviving the family melon, "but I needed some soul behind it."
These days, Bradford also grows heirloom greens and okra, but in late summer it's watermelon that he slices at his dining room table, causing his five children to thunder down the stairs for a taste. They help in the fields when they're not in school, but they haven't yet tired of eating the fruits of their labor, which have a cotton candy texture, intense sweetness, and white seeds.
Gesturing to one of his sons, Bradford says, "When he gets out on his own someday and eats his first store-bought watermelon, he's gonna say, "Gosh, I want that old melon back."" And Bradford hopes that memory will send his children home to carry on the family legacy.