The fantastic story of Sumter’s Bradford family, their namesake watermelon, and a mission (+video)

Susan Ardis

The first seed crop of Bradford watermelons are loaded, nestled in hay, for the trip from Sumter to Charleston for processing.
The first seed crop of Bradford watermelons are loaded, nestled in hay, for the trip from Sumter to Charleston for processing. Courtesy of Nat Bradford

Randomness, it seems, rules my life at times.

For instance, my sister and I were discussing what to plant in our respective gardens this year (I grow in pots and she has about a dozen raised beds plus some extra space near a grape arbor). I told her that I was thinking of giving up on heirloom tomatoes because they didn’t produce much last year and would be searching for something different to plant. Preferably something unique to South Carolina.

That’s how I stumbled across the Slow Food Ark of Taste website and its listing for the Bradford watermelon. A link from there took me to the story of the Bradford family of Sumter, a really cool story and, eventually, seeds for my sister’s garden.

Let me tell you the (short) story of the Bradford watermelon.

In 1783, during the Revolutionary War, a Georgian named John Franklin Lawson was captured by the British in Charleston and shipped off to the West Indies where he was imprisoned. On the prison ship, the ship’s captain gave Lawson a slice of watermelon (as a source of water) and Lawson saved the seeds.

Upon his return to Georgia, Lawson planted the seeds and thus sprouted the Lawson watermelon, a variety noted for its sweetness and flavor. The Lawson watermelon, although hailed as the best tasting watermelon of the antebellum era in the United States, proved to be difficult to grow and ship commercially. So around 1840, a friend of Lawson sent some seeds to other melon farmers across the South, including one Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford of Sumter County. Bradford crossed the Lawson with the Mountain Sweet melon variety and the result was the Bradford watermelon.

The Bradford watermelon was the most important late-season market melon in the South from the 1860s through the 1910s. But this variety cannot be stacked high for shipping (the rind is too fragile, the weight of the melons crushes others stacked below). So the Bradford fell out of favor for harder rind or “rhino-hide” varieties such as Kolb’s Gem. According to records, the last commercial crop of Bradford melons was planted in 1922 outside of Augusta.

present day ... and the future?

While the commercial story may have ended, back in Sumter County, the Bradford family continued to grow the melons.

Today, Nat Bradford, the eighth-generation namesake of the original breeder, is growing the Bradford watermelon in small patches that are within 10 miles of the original fields. He learned from his grandfather how to sow the seed and select the hardiest plants and hopes to bring the Bradford melon back to market.

And to erase any doubt as to the melon’s true heritage, Bradford contacted David Shields, Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and noted food historian. Shields had researched the history of watermelons while writing “Lowcountry & Southern Cuisine – Southern Provisions” (University of Chicago Press, March 2015) and was able to discern, through agricultural journals and seed catalogs from the 19th century, the characteristic description of the Bradford melon: “oblong, dark green rind watermelon with red flesh and white seeds weighing 30 lbs fully grown. Depending on the soil it is grown in, the rind develops longitudinal reticulations (stripes).”

Thus, the Bradford melon is “one of the three oldest surviving North American watermelons for which a breeding discipline and a standard configuration developed.”

The Bradford family has bred the melons through a natural selection process over the past 170 years to withstand heat and drought on one hand and cold and wet summers on the other. Here’s how it works: Nat Bradford looks for the first two plants from a hill of about 12 seeds planted to sprout and send off runners. Those two plants he keeps and he culls the remaining plants from the hill. Bradford uses an open pollination method, no chemical pesticides or fertilizers and ... get this ... no irrigation system. The last bit is important because it leads to Bradford’s (the family and the melon) future.

Nat Bradford reserves 3 to 4 percent of the crop for seed melons to ensure future plantings. This seed saving over the years, and the fact that these melons have the ability to grow and produce without an irrigation system, has given Nat Bradford and his family a new purpose. The way I see it, Bradford is bringing his family’s story back full circle to the story of John Lawson on the prison ship.

Mindful that Lawson was given the watermelon slice as nourishment, Bradford has set up a charity called Watermelons for Water to send the Bradford watermelon seeds to drought-stricken areas around the world. A portion of the money raised from the sale of seeds online goes to pay for digging wells in rural communities. The first crop of Bradford watermelons was harvested in Tanzania last year, according to the TAISEDO (Tanzanian International Socio Economic Development Organization) Facebook site.

Other fun stuff

In 2013, Nat Bradford reached out to the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (Shields and Glenn Roberts, of Anson Mills), Slow Food Upstate (Bradford lives in Seneca while maintaining the Sumter farm) and local farmers markets to help bring his melons to market.

Greenville and Charleston area organizations stepped up, and in late summer of 2013, 45 seed melons were shipped in a single layer, cradled in hay on the back of a trailer to McCrady’s Restaurant in Charleston. There, Bradford and his father joined the chefs and kitchen staff of McCrady’s and Thomas Locke, with the Carolina Farmstewards Association, in harvesting the seeds and processing the rinds and juice of those watermelons.

The resulting 80 gallons of the watermelon juice was boiled down to make 8 gallons of watermelon molasses. Bradford’s description: “All of the batches were exceptional and not anything like molasses that folks are familiar with! The color is phenomenal. The fragrance is the essence of watermelon infused with caramel! The taste is otherworldly. These young creative chefs immediately began imagining the applications: barbeque sauce, glazed over a salty smoke cured ham, cocktails, drizzled over pastries. Its applications would be as limitless as their imaginations.”

The rinds produced 400 1-quart jars of rind pickles. The other 300 harvested field melons went for sale at local farmers markets in Greenville and Charleston.

grow your own?

I ended up purchasing three packages of seeds: one for my sister, one for the owner of the corner convenience store and one for my dad. (I have a dog and a small yard, so I’ll just help with the eating, not growing!) The growing instructions are quite detailed, but easy enough to follow.

One thing to keep in mind if you want to try to grown your own is that watermelons have a tendency to easily cross-pollinate and hybridize with other melons, squashes and even cucumbers (they’ve been called “promiscuous”) so when planting, make sure that you have enough room (like across the yard) or forgo the squashes and cukes. Else you’re liable to end up with what Shields calls “Frankenfruit.”

Watermelon Sweet Pickles (1867 version)

Makes about 3 cups

Two pounds of watermelon rinds, boiled in pure water until tender. Drain them well.

Then make a syrup of two pounds of sugar, one quart of vinegar, half an ounce of mace, an ounce of cinnamon and some roots of ginger boiled until thick and pour over the melons boiling hot.

Drain off the syrup, heat it until boiling hot and pour over the melons three days in succession. They are very nice and will keep two years.

Maria Massey Barringer, “Dixie cookery; or, How I managed my table for twelve years: A practical cook-book for southern housekeepers” (Cambridge, MA: Loring, 1867)

Watermelon Rind Pickles

Makes 3 1/2 cups

A 4-pound piece of watermelon, quartered

8 cups water

2 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 cups sugar

1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar

8 whole cloves

8 whole black peppercorns

2 cinnamon sticks

1/2 teaspoon pickling spice

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Cut watermelon pulp from rind, leaving thin layer of pink on rind (reserve pulp for another use). Cut green outer skin from rind; discard. Cut enough rind into 1 by 1/2-inch pieces to measure 4 cups. Combine 8 cups water and 2 tablespoons salt in large pot; bring to boil. Add rind pieces and boil until tender, about 5 minutes. Strain. Transfer rinds to large metal bowl.

Combine remaining 2 teaspoons salt, sugar and next 7 ingredients in heavy large saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Pour over watermelon rinds in bowl. Place plate atop rinds to keep rinds submerged in pickling liquid. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.

Strain liquid from rinds into saucepan; bring to boil. Pour over rinds. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Repeat straining and boiling of liquid and pour over rinds 1 more time. (Can be made 2 weeks ahead. Chill in covered jars.)

Bon Appetit, August 1998,

To buy seeds

Bradford watermelon seeds are available for $10 per packet, each package contains 12 seeds and planting instructions.

Order through the Watermelons for Water Facebook page or

Limit five packets per person.