My association with the Watson Watermelon goes back to July, 1944. I was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Gordon with my unit, the 36th Cavalry Squadron, preparing to go overseas to war. We were packing all of our equipment in the large railroad shed located on the right side of Highway 78 at the steel railroad bridge as you go to Fort Gordon. It was early July. The wooden barracks at Fort Gordon were very hot and on the weekends the men needed something to do other than lie around. We decided that since it was watermelon season, we would have a watermelon cutting in Thomson, provided that we could find some watermelons.
The following Monday, I called Mr. Truman Watson, a farmer in McDuffie County, who grew Watson Watermelons, to ask if we could get some of his watermelons.
Mr. Truman was Tom Watson's nephew who was growing the watermelons for their seed. Mr. Truman said that he would give us all the watermelons we wanted if we would save all of the seeds for him. He also let us use his wooden barrels to cut the watermelons on and spread out the seeds to dry.
My mother and the ladies of the garden clubs in Thomson, with the help of the Special Services Office at Fort Gordon, organized the outing which was held on the last Saturday in July. As it turned out, we didn't have just a small outing, but an entire day of activities in Thomson.
We arranged to use several troop trucks for transportation and brought 200 soldiers over to Thomson on a hot Saturday in late July 1944 for watermelons and swimming. Now, what do you do with 200 young soldiers in uniform on a sweltering hot Saturday in Thomson, Ga.? The garden club ladies were up to the challenge. These ladies included my mother, Mrs. Marion Howell, Mrs. Mary Lyles Knox, Mrs. Kate Baston, Mrs. Myrtle Perryman and Mrs. Marie Gibson (just to name a few). These ladies knew how to entertain. We had a fabulous Saturday in Thomson.
Several members of our unit came over on Friday, the day before, to make preparations. That Friday, our first task was to go to pick a truckload of Watson Watermelons from Mr. Truman Watson's watermelon patch. Next, we had to ice down the watermelons at Mr. George Dobbs' Ice House. Ice came in 300-lb. blocks. We put our watermelons in the cold storage room on top of the blocks of ice to get them cold. By the next morning they were very cold. The ice house was at that time located on Railroad Street where the City of Thomson vehicle and equipment barn is today. Saturday morning, we picked up the watermelons and went out to Shield's Pond. Shield's Pond was "the place" at that time to go swimming and have a picnic or an outing. The facilities included a small, sandy beach, a wooden stall bath house to change clothes and showers to rinse off. The swimming area was bordered by a wooden dock. Beyond the dock was a floating wooden raft. Around the pond, the stumps were marked with iron posts. You could swim from post to post. There was also a wooden platform with several floors on four telephone poles where you could climb up a ladder and jump off into the pond. There was even a high platform on the top. It was really a nice place to go.
The garden glub ladies went all out for this outing. After the swimming and watermelon cutting, they arranged for our squadron to play a baseball game against the Thomson team, at Thomson High School. Thomson had a very good baseball team, as baseball was "the sport" at that time. Four or five of the Farr boys played for Thomson. We also had several good baseball players. In our Army squadron I particularly remember our catcher, a boy named Pearly Grant, and our pitcher, Ralph Geronimo. Both played later for the New York Yankees. Pearly Grant was a great catcher. From home plate, he could throw out a base runner trying to steal second base every time without having to stand up.
Saturday night, we had a fried chicken supper with all the trimmings at the Thomson High Gymnasium.
There was more food than you can imagine, including many homemade pies and cakes, even though the sugar ration was in force. We had many ladies in Thomson who were excellent cooks who sent over their best dishes that they had prepared.
After supper, Fort Gordon and the garden club ladies had arranged a dance for us in the gymnasium, with a 10-piece orchestra brought over from Fort Gordon. Now, in order to have the dance, we had to have girls. The garden club ladies and Fort Gordon had taken care of this matter also by arranging to have over 100 area young ladies present, as well as an appropriate number of chaperones. Normally, chaperoned buses were sent over from Augusta on the weekend to pick up the girls who wanted to go to the USO club in Augusta for dancing to swing music, and included jitterbugging and break dancing. That night, all of the girls were diverted to Thomson to our dance at the gymnasium. There were several local romances that came out of that weekend.
I am sure that all of the soldiers who were in Thomson that weekend in July 1944 have fond memories of the watermelon cutting weekend thanks to the garden club ladies of Thomson and the Special Services Office at Fort Gordon.
Thomson's Ben Howell Sr. made these remarks during the Tom Watson Watermelon Festival last month and submitted them for publication.