The World’s Original Watermelon Festival
By Martha Bee Anderson
Hampton County is the home of the world’s original Watermelon Festival. Since 1939, the Hampton County Watermelon Festival has grown to become South Carolina’s oldest continuing festival. From the beginning, it has been a celebration of, for, and by the people of this friendly Lowcountry County, timed to the melon harvest every summer. The tradition was interrupted only twice, first during World War II (1943—45) and again during the Korean War (1951).
Hampton County’s place among the state’s top watermelon producers is what gave birth to the first festival. Appropriately, watermelons, for which Hampton County has become famous, have continued to provide a colorful vehicle for year-round promotion of the area – and Hampton County’s symbol of hospitality.
According to local lore, the idea of a festival to promote the local crop of watermelons sprang from a conversation in the office of the Clemson Extension Agent for Hampton County (John C. Anthony) and local newspaperman S.L. Malphus. Hampton Mayor J. Frank Rivers joined the conversation, and together they came up with the idea of forming a Hampton Boosters Club, made up of business, farm and community leaders, and town and county officials.
The first watermelon festival was a three-day event held in July. Events included baseball games, parades, band concerts, barbecues, and “speakings.”
The U.S. Marine Corps band from nearby Parris Island was a special attraction for the first parade, and held a concert on the courthouse square afterward. They have returned for almost every festival since.
Since then, the festival has grown into a kaleidoscope of events that now span the course of eight days – including a beauty contest, Battle of the Towns, Mud Run, parade, arts and crafts, a street dance and many more.
Year in and year out, the state politicians make the trek to Hampton for the festival. The late U.S. congressman Mendel Rivers of Charleston launched his first successful campaign for the office at the Hampton festival, and the county’s vote put him over the top. He never missed a Watermelon Festival afterward, and always liked telling audience why. A slew of candidates have followed Rivers’ example over the years – governors, senators, congressmen and representatives of every top office in the state of South Carolina. In 1953, the Hampton County Watermelon Festival gained national attention when the Vice-President of the United States, Alvin Barkley, paid a visit and served as the parade’s grand marshal.
Among early highlights was the 4th Watermelon Festival, held in 1942, which was sparked by the appearance of the red-headed South Carolina beauty Juanita Redmond, who was home after having survived the Battle of Bataan during World War II.
In 1948, the Melon Ball was a swinging success with the Big Band sound of New York bandleader Vincent Lopez. By 1963, the festival had begun to lose some of its momentum, and came close to withering on the vine for lack of volunteer manpower and sponsorship.
The Estill Jaycee chapter entered the picture and offered to team up with the Hampton-Varnville Jaycees for joint sponsorship to help keep the festival going. Once more the festival began to pick up momentum, and for several years the two communities alternated as hosts, staging it one year in Hampton-Varnville and one year in Estill. Since 1974, the Watermelon Festival has been back in its original home and chartered as a non-profit organization run by volunteers.
County history itself has been intertwined with the festival, jazzed up by many memorable chapters in the years past. Hampton County celebrated its 100th birthday as part of the 37th Festival in 1979.
Few festivals could out-shine the 23rd Watermelon Festival held in Estill in 1965. There were star attractions that year – astronaut-greats just back from the exploration of outer space. Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury astronauts who was to die in a tragic accident two years later while taking part in the Apollo moon mission, was the festival keynote speaker. Sharing the platform with him were Apollo crewmember John Young, NASA Director James E. Webb and Congressman Rivers, then in his hey-day as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who was influential in getting the NASA personnel here.
The space explorers drew one of the biggest crowds of all time and more state, regional and national big-wigs showed up than there were ripe watermelons! National media coverage of Hampton County was featured in the New York Times and on the national radio and television networks.
Charleston Grays, Congoes, Crimson Sweets, Fairfaxes, Garrisons and Cannon Balls – by whatever name, the real center attraction of all attractions at our festival is the fruit of the vine, and the world’s sweetest ones are supposed to grow in Hampton County.
Going back to the earliest celebrations, among the best attended attractions is always Friday night’s street dance in Hampton. But the crowning event of every Watermelon Festival, of course, is the Miss Coastal Empire pageant. Many a Palmetto State beauty has added to the scenery, including the late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond’s wife, who came as Miss South Carolina (Nancy Moore of Aiken) in 1966, to the 24th Watermelon Festival.
Few could surpass the beauty of the former Marian McKnight of Manning, who participated in the pageant just before going to Atlantic City as Miss South Carolina, where she won the Miss America crown.
In 1993, the festival expanded to eight days, “Sunday to Sunday.” Opening ceremonies were coupled with a new event called “Festival Family Fun Day,” sponsored by the Hampton County Chamber of Commerce and held at Lake Warren State Park. The expansion made the Watermelon Festival the third longest festival in the state.
A new beauty is picked to be queen of the Coastal Empire every summer, while the same old King Watermelon reigns in glory!