Picking watermelons is a tough way to earn a buck

April 22, 2022

Summer jobs. The memories start to flow when I recall some of the crazy summer and part-time jobs I had as a teenager.

When I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you had to really search for summer jobs in the western part of the county. Many of my friends ended up working at jobs in Rehoboth Beach where it was a little easier to find employment. Some even traveled to Ocean City, Md.

Places where teens usually get jobs, like fast-food restaurants, were few and far between. The only fast-food place in the area was Tastee-Freez.

Those of us without cars or a license had to get a little creative to earn some spending money.

I delivered papers, cut grass, did some roofing and painting, and pumped gas, but most of my employment as a young teenager centered around the Laurel Farmers' Auction Market, better known as The Block, where farmers sold their watermelons and other produce directly to buyers from the big cities.

It was a busy place that provided jobs for a lot of people. Although The Block is still open, the business transacted now is nothing compared to when I worked there. The Block no longer auctions off melons five or six days a week, but instead has sales Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Even so, more than 2 million melons are sold to small and large buyers from all over the East Coast and Canada each summer.


Market dates back to 1940

The market opened in 1940, when 10 farmers appointed as directors solicited $1,065 in seed money to get the venture started. That first year, there were 22,000 sales totaling $232,000; today's sales annually top $5 million. The cooperative market has supported hundreds of Delaware and Maryland watermelon farmers.

Light, sandy soil combined with warm summer climate make conditions perfect to grow produce, and especially watermelons, in Sussex County and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The watermelon business has been big in the Laurel area for more a century. Before the The Block opened, farmers shipped train carloads of melons to metropolitan areas in and around New York City.

In 1904, farmers shipped more than 54,000 melons to New York, which were sold for more than $30,000.

In 1926, farmers shipped more than 2,000 train carloads of melons and cantaloupes to New York.


Getting to work

At the age of 13, when our parents couldn't drive us there, my friends and I hitchhiked from Seaford to Laurel early every morning.

Fortunately, one of my older friends soon got his license and we all piled in his 1940s something big black car every day to get to work.

Work at The Block was hard and very unpredictable. We walked up and down the long lines of trucks loaded with watermelons to see if farmers needed help unloading them after they were auctioned off. The melons were heavy – 20 to 40 pounds – and once you started unloading them, either to a crew in a tractor-trailer or another large truck, it was nonstop. They wanted the melons unloaded quickly. For your work, you were lucky to get $5. Going home with $20 in your pocket was a good day.

Eventually, we got to know some of the farmers and landed jobs on their farms. Although the main task was picking watermelons and loading them on trucks and trailers to be taken to The Block, there were other jobs as well.

I worked for the Hastings family on their Bethel watermelon farm. Today, the family is well known as the owners of Jeff's Greenhouse.

Since I was the youngest and smallest of my friends, I usually ended up driving the tractor in the field while my friends picked melons. After I got my driver's license, I drove melons to auction with specific instructions from the farmer on what price to accept.

It wasn't unusual to yell “no sale” and drive off, get back in line and get a better deal the next time through.

Of course, I told the farmer I could drive a three-speed truck, even though I couldn't. You learn fast on the farm.


Part of a Florida crew

There was always work to be had by joining Florida crews, but it was the last-ditch job when nothing else was available.

These were migrant workers who followed the watermelon crop from Florida north to Sussex County. They still come to work each summer in Sussex fields. You've probably seen them driving those roofless old school buses loaded with melons.

When you jumped in the back of their truck, you really never knew where you would end up or what time you would get back to The Block. Sometimes it was near sunset.

That was an experience, and looking back on it, I wonder how I survived. The Florida crews worked and lived by their own rules. They worked hard in the fields and it was hard to keep up with them. I usually ended up stacking watermelons on trailers being pulled by tractors.

There were no breaks, and watermelons nearly flew out of the fields. Stacking was an art that I was forced to learn very quickly.

Most of the workers had sketchy histories, and I learned to keep my distance from them, especially after I witnessed a knife fight.

I earned their respect one day after I dove into a pond to rescue a guy who had jumped in and couldn't swim.

I was a 16-year-old kid doing this crazy stuff.

When I look back on it, I guess I never told my parents what we did during the day.

I've cleaned out chicken houses, pulled weeds (and fought off snakes) in soybean fields, and picked cucumbers, Charleston Greys, Crimson Sweets, Congos, Sugar Babies, Jubilees and Hale's Scones.

This kind of work probably seems foreign to today's teenagers.





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