South Carolina’s Pomaria Nurseries, begun before 1835 and formally founded in 1840, is now known in horticultural circles as a premier early American nursery. Its extensive offerings of landscape trees and shrubs, both native and exotic, continue to impress garden historians. The nursery was begun by William Summer, but he was ably assisted by his younger brother, Adam, born in 1818.
The area of plant breeding is one sphere of the nursery’s endeavor that has never received adequate recognition. William bred and introduced several dozens of new apples, pears, and peaches, but Adam’s contribution was in the watermelon, primarily in three varieties that achieved celebrity in mid-19th century America. The two most famous of these were the Odell’s Large White and the Ravenscroft, watermelons that are once again making horticultural history.
In July 1851, the Columbia Palmetto State Banner reported that Adam was fully engaged in watermelon breeding at his plantation, Ravenscroft, situated a few miles south of Pomaria Plantation. This was on the Old State Road, today’s Highway 176 north of the Spring Hill community.
The famous Philadelphia seedsman and horticulturist Dr. William D. Brincklé was a close friend of Pomaria Nursery. Brincklé is responsible for preserving some of the history of the origins of Adam’s watermelons. In Horticulture Magazine in 1857, Brincklé wrote that the immense melon known as Odell’s Large White originated on the property of Col. A.G. Summer. An unnamed farmer brought it to Adam’s attention. It may have been a chance cross or a sport of one of Adam’s melons in his experimental plots.
Four years earlier, the Southern Cultivator had reported that Adam’s young friend Milton Odell exhibited a “huge watermelon weighing 54 pounds and measuring 51 by 46 inches in circumference.” Odell was identified as being from the area known as Mollohon in Newberry District. The Mollohon community is located some 3-5 miles south of present day Whitmire and some 25 miles from Ravenscroft. In the1850 Census, the name is spelled Odle, suggesting that it may have been pronounced with the accent on the first syllable.
Milton was born Feb. 22, 1826, in Newberry District and died in Marion County in central Florida, on Dec. 7, 1895, at the age of 69. He was 8 years younger than Adam. His father, John Odell, a small yeoman farmer, died in 1839, a few weeks after Milton turned 13. Milton’s widowed mother, Rebecca, had several young children to support. Without a father, Milton no doubt had to shoulder much responsibility for the family.
Milton and Adam must have been good friends. Milton, unmarried, moved to Marion County, Florida, in 1855-1857 at the same time Adam was taking up land there. Adam was also unmarried. Adam’s father died in 1855 and Milton’s mother in 1857, freeing them both of filial duties in South Carolina.
The Perry family, particularly John Sikes Perry, Milton’s father-in-law, had close associations with the Summer family and the Pomaria and Spring Hill communities. Extant undelivered copies of William Summer’s Farmer and Planter from 1859, addressed to J.S. Perry of Florida, were still at Pomaria Plantation in the late 1990s. They were never forwarded to Perry’s new home.
Neither Adam nor William Summer disputed the name Odell for the watermelon. Adam was no doubt happy that his young friend, a struggling farmer who was devoted enough to Adam to follow his lead to Florida, should be remembered with so fine a product. As John Carwile, Adam’s first biographer, noted, he was always quietly helping young people who showed promise to get a start and better themselves, whether in farming, art, literature, or music. His good will and patronage are likely reflected in the name the melon bears rather famously today. It is clear from his biography that Adam was not interested in fame for his many experiments and undertakings. His character demonstrates the meaning of the term gentleman farmer.
The recent rediscovery of the Odell also provides an interesting story. In the summer of 2016, Rodger and Karen Shealy Winn of Little Mountain grew four plants of a white watermelon in their perennial border. The seeds came from Karen’s grandparents, the Metzes, who had been growing the melon in Little Mountain since the 1880s.
When I visited the Winns in August 2016, I had just been reading the now classic Field and Garden Vegetables of America, written by Fearing Burr, Jr., and published in 1863. Here he listed Odell’s Large White and the Ravenscroft. Burr called the white melon “remarkably large, the fruit sometimes weighing sixty pounds.” The description of Odell’s Large White, furnished to Burr by Dr. W.D. Brincklé, immediately appeared to me to fit the Winns’ melon perfectly. One of the Winns’ melons that year weighed more than 50 pounds. The round shape, color, and markings corresponded to the Burr/Brincklé description. So did the scarcity of seeds.
Rodger gave me seeds from this large melon, and I planted them in late April 2017. He also planted three 200-foot rows, some of which were eaten by deer. My 16 hills yielded 55 melons, ranging up to 50 pounds. Both Rodger and I saved the seed. He furnished 10 pounds to Southern Exposure Seeds in Virginia, and I made them available to friends as Christmas presents, then in winter 2017 provided two pounds of seed to Sow True Seeds of Asheville, North Carolina, where they are still currently available.
In the Southern Cultivator article of 1853, the writer furnished a very detailed description of the shape and weight of the watermelon Milton Odell exhibited. It weighed 54 pounds and measured 51 by 46 inches in circumference. Dividing 51 into 46 yields a ratio of .902. I measured a sampling of my crop in summer of 2016. A 30-pound melon measured 40 by 37 inches with a ratio of .925. A 20-pound melon measured 33 by 32 with a ratio of .930. A 19-pound melon measured 34 by 30 with a ratio of .900. The melons I grew did not vary in shape or color very much. They all fit the 1863 description. Burr and Brincklé said the melon sometimes weighed 60 pounds. Winn grew one in 2016 that was 53 pounds. My largest was 48 pounds with no irrigation or fertilizer.
This comparison of Milton Odell’s melon of 1853 with my own suggests their slightly oblong proportions to be the same and likely attests to the purity of the strain. Mrs. Winn says that this was the only melon her family grew and the only one she knew as a girl. The isolation of the melon on her family’s farm likely explains the purity of the strain. In the 1870s, the Odell melon went west to the Lodi, California, area where it became the signature melon. In the next two decades it became a celebrated melon on the West Coast under the name of the California Watermelon until its water requirements spelled its doom as a field crop. The melon was also grown in Australia.
In summer 2017, the melons in my field were starkly white when fully ripe, especially so with a light morning dew on them. In the shade they had a very pale green cast from subtle netting but still should be described as more white than gray. Brincklé noted this “fine green network spread over its uneven surface.” The melons in my field stood out beautifully in the morning light among their dark and lush ruffled foliage, which they rose above owing to their large round shape.
The typical rind of my melons harvested in 2017 measured ½ to ¾ inch. Brincklé’s 1857 description listed the rind as nearly ¾ of an inch in thickness. The seeds varied from light to dark brown when wet and had a darker brownish-black marginal border, very typical of other local 19th century melons of central South Carolina, including the Bradford. When dry, these seeds turned ivory. As Burr reported, the melon is prolific. Without fertilizer or irrigation of any sort in a dryer than usual summer, my hills in upper Newberry County yielded three to four melons of varying size per hill. Burr and Brincklé related that the Odell has a “long keeping quality after being separated from the vine.” I found this to be accurate. I cut melons at Christmas. The recipient of a melon mailed to Charlottesville, Virginia, by Rodger Winn in 2017 said the melon was still good when cut after eight weeks off the vine.
I am even more certain today that the melon the Metze family had been growing since the 1880s is the “Odell’s Large White” described by Fearing Burr. Finding it less than six miles from Ravenscroft where the melon originated a century and a half ago is testimony both to the strong farm traditions of the area and to the stamina of the melon itself. Its elegant white rind and its crisp, very sweet, pinkish lavender-red flesh make it a very desirable melon. It calls for damask tablecloths and silver candelabra. Burr and Brincklé called the flesh pale red and “fine.” They rated its quality as “very good.”
In 2019, Odell’s Large White became famous once again when it was featured in Amy Goldman Fowler’s definitive volume The Melon. There Amy gives it three pages and several color illustrations. She grew the melon successfully in her Over the River Farm in Rhinebeck, New York. The melon was boarded on the prestigious international Slow Food’s “Ark of Taste” in 2018.
Somewhat miraculously, Brincklé’s close description of melons has also made possible the rediscovery of Adam’s second prized melon, the Ravenscroft. In 2017, Carold Wicker, an heirloom seed-saving farmer from Pomaria, gave me seed that matched the description of the Brincklé description of the Ravenscroft’s seeds. He had saved the unnamed melon seeds in his freezer for decades from his maternal Leitzsey family. I grew it the following year, and its shape, weight, markings, rind measurement, taste, color, and flesh texture all perfectly matched the description given by Brincklé. It was judged to be even sweeter and crisper than the Odell’s, a judgment also made by Brincklé and Fearing Burr, who deemed it of “best” quality, the only melon to be so described. The Leitzseys had lived a short 10 miles from the melon’s namesake plantation, Ravenscroft, just as the Winns’ melon had been saved from half that distance. The melons had not traveled very far.
The conservative small farm traditions of the seed savers of the area have thus made these important recoveries possible. Without Carold’s freezer full of local seeds collected over a long life of farming, the Ravenscroft may have been lost.
Again, as she did the Odell, Amy Goldman Fowler in 2019 grew the Ravenscroft successfully on her New York farm from seeds I sent her. Her husband, Cary, who is the main force behind the world-famous “Global Heirloom Seed Vault” repository in Svalbard, Norway, declared in 2020 that he found the taste of the Ravenscroft so much like the taste of melons he remembered when he was a child in Tennessee. Such testimonies are the priceless rewards of historian-heirloom-seed detectives.
If it still exists, a third Adam Summer melon, named the Pomaria, may await discovery. Unfortunately, neither Burr nor Brincklé has left us the precise descriptions they did for the Odell and Ravenscroft, so finding it will be more difficult. One never knows however, for 10 years ago neither the Odell nor Ravenscroft was known to the world except in a book published a century and a half ago. Amy, now the acclaimed melon expert, recently wrote that finding and placing these two exceptional Adam Summer melons back in commerce has been a great mitzvah — in Hebraic tradition, the word for “a very good deed.” In heirloom seed saving, a long unbroken chain of very good deeds has made today’s one good deed possible.
Dr. Kibler received his doctorate in English at the University of South Carolina. For more information on Adam Summer and his contributions, see Dr. Kibler’s Taking Root: The Nature Writing of William and Adam Summer (USC Press, 2018).