Every year, Water Valley native Hal Vaughn makes the drive out to the Grenada Reservoir Spillway to spend the day fishing for shad to take home with him. He, however, does not eat the shad or even use them as catfish bait as is a common practice among fishermen.
Instead, he takes them out to a patch of farmland on his property and buries them in a specially prepared patch of loose, sandy soil. After leaving the fish to rot in the soil for some time, Vaughn adds to the mix what he refers to as “gin trash,” which is the refuse left over after using a cotton gin to separate the actual cotton from the rest of the plant, as well as a generous amount of phosphate and potash.
Vaughn, who worked as a railroad engineer for 40 years before retiring in 2002, makes these specific preparations for one particular purpose: creating loose and nutrient-rich soil perfect for supporting the roots of giant watermelons weighing several hundred pounds for the annual Water Valley Watermelon Carnival. Vaughn is currently preparing for his fifth consecutive year of entering the event’s largest-watermelon competition.
He previously won the contest from 2017 to 2019 and came in second place in 2021. The largest melon Vaughn ever managed to grow, which he presented during the 2018 Watermelon Carnival, weighed 202 pounds.
This year’s Water Valley Watermelon Carnival will take place from Friday, Aug. 5, to Saturday, Aug. 6. The two-day event will include a street dance, a fireworks display, a watermelon drop, watermelon eating and seed-spitting contests, a car show, a barbecue contest, food and craft vendors, a 3k run and walk, and more.
Watermelons Preserved Water Valley’s Economy
When the Great Depression began gripping the United States in the early 1930s, the small town of Water Valley in northern Mississippi quickly felt its effects. The People’s Bank that served the local area closed its doors, and rail companies that had been key to the town’s prosperity since the 1800s began pulling out, leading unemployment to hit the town hard.
In the midst of the crisis, the then-editor of the local newspaper, the Yalobusha Democrat, rallied young businessmen from the Junior Chamber of Commerce to come up with a way to both raise locals’ morale and to find something of value the town could use to draw attention to itself and attract business. Ultimately, the answer they came up with was watermelons, and they organized the inaugural Water Valley Watermelon Carnival in August 1931.
“The idea of the carnival was to look for ways to make money and help the farmers by coming up with a needed product at the time,” Water Valley native and former photographer and journalist Jack Gurner says. “There was plenty of cotton to be sure, but the area also had great melons, and they figured that if farmers could grow enough of them to ship in large quantities, it could make a difference.”
“There was a market for watermelons in Chicago, and if they could draw attention and attract a buyer, they could put them on one of the trains still running and ship them up north,” Gurner adds.
Early incarnations of the Watermelon Carnival included a parade, a formal ball and a pageant where residents named a carnival queen to serve as the face of the event. The carnival proved to be a success and ran for nine straight years until the outbreak of World War II brought the festivities to a roughly 40-year hiatus.
In the early 1980s, a Water Valley educator named Joe Elliot brought local businesses together once again to revive the Watermelon Carnival, which still goes strong today as a yearly event with elements both old and new.
During the years since its revival, the carnival has made the Southeastern Tourism Society’s list of the top 20 festivals in the region and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest watermelon eating contest in 2019, which saw 745 participants take part.
2022 Watermelon Carnival Highlights
Festivities for the 2022 Water Valley Watermelon Carnival will begin at 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 5, with Water Valley Mayor Donald Gray hosting the opening ceremony and introducing this year’s Watermelon Queen, Pa’nia Hawkins. Hawkins will then conduct the annual watermelon drop event, during which she will ride up Central Street in a bucket truck and drop a watermelon from the bucket’s maximum height.
Water Valley’s branch of the National Association of Junior Auxiliaries selects the Watermelon Queen each year in May ahead of the festival through a beauty pageant in which participants answer questions about Water Valley—such as listing their favorite local resident or favorite part of the Watermelon Carnival and explaining why. A panel of three judges chooses winners for multiple age groups from elementary to high school, with the high-school category winner serving as Watermelon Queen.
“The Watermelon Queen is a young lady who represents our town well and possesses the best attributes of a Water Valleyan,” Anna Langham, associate member and former president of Junior Auxiliary of Water Valley, says. “Our mission is to help children in the community and provide essential services, and the Watermelon Carnival is an important fundraiser for us, so we’re proud to select someone each year who can serve as the face of the event.”
Starting at 7 p.m., the town will shut down Central Street and hold a street dance next to Water Valley City Park featuring live music from Kevin and Bethany Paige, the house band for Alfred’s on Beale in Memphis, Tenn. At 9 p.m., Mechanics Bank will host a fireworks display at the park to end off the first day of festivities.
On Saturday, Aug. 6, Mechanics Bank will host a 3k run and walk in downtown Water Valley beginning at 6:30 a.m., and Fischer Properties will hold a car show at Shuffield Park beginning at 8 a.m. The Train Tracks Pork Attack Barbecue Cooking Contest, a qualifying event for the annual Memphis in May competition, will take place behind Renasant Bank at 9 a.m. Junior Auxiliary will host watermelon-eating and seed-spitting contests beginning at 11 a.m., as well as the annual largest watermelon competition at noon.
The second day of the Watermelon Carnival will also feature live music from Pharm Truck, Tanner Mills, Joe Austin & The Tallahatchies, Carson Stanford and Tom Foolery, as well as free watermelon slices and an auction for the winning largest watermelon.
“I moved to Water Valley about 24 years ago, and it has since become my adopted hometown,” Water Valley Chamber of Commerce President Rhonda Burghett says. “This event is always a great chance to go out on the weekend and see people you might otherwise not see very often, and it serves as a great boost for the town. It’s the perfect way to soak up everything our downtown businesses have to offer and enjoy fellowship with friends and family.”
For more information on the Water Valley Watermelon Carnival, visit watervalleychamber.com or call 662-473-1122.