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The Bradford Watermelon Makes a Comeback

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Being thin-skinned isn't typically a positive, but in the case of a certain Sumter-grown watermelon, it's the sign of something special. Digging into a Bradford watermelon means juicy eating all the way through to the soft rind. The late-harvest, thin-skinned melon has an ultra-sweet flavor profile and is considered the best of the best by the best, thereby making it the darling of chefs and melon aficionados across South Carolina and beyond.

A taste of history

Having such a delicate skin nips the Bradford's shelf-life considerably, so you won't see these oblong beauties being shipped across the country. The distinctive skin, tender rind and super sweet flesh demand immediate enjoyment. But that's only a wee part of what makes this variety a giant among melons. When you sink your teeth into a wedge, you're not only getting a refreshingly delicious hot weather treat, but a slice of South Carolina agricultural history, as well. Every heirloom melon plucked from the Bradford fields represents the multi-generational story of a family of farmers whose traditions have kept this thought-to-be-extinct fruit thriving on the vine.

"I knew our family had grown this watermelon for about 100 years," said Nat Bradford, who left a career in landscape architecture to farm the Sumter acres just as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had. "It was simply a matter of maintaining the family crops. We never had any desire to grow beyond our family operation."

In the late 1990s, he happened upon an 1850s chronicle about the most highly regarded fruits and vegetables of that time. Flipping eagerly to the section on watermelons, Nat was intrigued to see mention of a Bradford melon from South Carolina, which the author cited as "the best variety I have yet found." Could this be Nat's backyard watermelon? Time - 14 years' worth, to be exact - would eventually tell.

Nat married his wife, Bette, and they set about establishing a life together, effectively sending the burning question to the mental slush pile. Babies were born and career changes made. When Nat took a interest in sustainable farming in 2012, he signed up for an agricultural conference to learn more. During a sleepless bout one night, the question of the Bradford melon resurfaced and resulted in an extensive internet search. That's when he found a heritage crops website on which University of South Carolina's Professor David Shields referenced the Bradford melon.

"I sent an email to him at 1 a.m. and had a response by 9 a.m. that essentially said, ‘I've been looking for this!'" Nat remembered. "It was such a gift to find out the Bradford melon mentioned in the 1800s was indeed our own watermelon. It had been in our family much longer than I thought, and David helped fill in the blanks, explaining that my great-grandfather, Nathaniel Bradford bred the melon and shared the seeds."

The watermelon was enthusiastically received, and commercial growers embraced it. It had such appeal that folks sometimes armed themselves or booby trapped their fields to protect their fruit booty. Alas, thick-skinned melons with tough, hard rinds came on the scene and changed everything. These sturdier, less flavorful melons had lengthy shelf lives and held up well during shipping, which meant more profits for growers. In 1922, the final commercial Bradford watermelon crop was harvested. It wasn't long before the melon lost its star status and was forgotten by just about everyone but the Bradford family.

A rousing encore

If you've ever had this watermelon, you're likely thankful for the Bradford's resolve to keep growing it. Today, Nat continues to farm the family land along with his father, growing hundreds of Bradford melons as well as okra, collards and other heirloom crops. He and Bette have six children who also help tend the fields and assist with other chores.

The Bradford variety might not be the hardiest of watermelons, but it is a versatile fruit. While the cream of the crop meets the demand of chefs and small markets, some melons are used to make rich molasses and crunchy, spiced rind pickles. Seeds are available for those interested in growing their own melons. Nat offers cultivating advice on his website, but warns that results are heavily dependent on soil and other conditions.

A portion of Bradford melon sales benefit the charity Nat and Bette founded called Watermelons for Water. The nonprofit helps fund the drilling of fresh water wells in depressed areas around the world and also provides medicine for water-borne illnesses. More than 12,000 people have been assisted through the effort, said Nat, who aims to make an even bigger impact by teaching people without fresh water how to grow watermelons.

"It's like growing water," he said. "Teaching others to cultivate and grow melons opens the door to sustainability. But, first we've got to get them well."

Now that the question surrounding the origins of the Bradford melon has been answered, a new question hangs in the air: How do you get a Bradford watermelon? The answer can be found here. Just keep in mind that harvest happens in late summer - the melon takes exactly 85 days to ripen and is usually ready sometime in August when other watermelons growers are packing it up. You might have to drive to the Upstate or Charleston to snag the prize, but one bite will make you forget your time and trouble.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.