Two Japanese watermelon breeders began experimenting with seedless watermelons in 1939, but it wasn’t until an Indiana scientist and a Texas farmer teamed up that seedless watermelons caught on with growers, shippers and consumers alike.
The scientist was plant geneticist Orie J. (O.J.) Eigsti from Goshen, Ind., who taught at Chicago State and Northwestern University for a combined 25 years.
Eigsti became seriously interested in the idea of a seedless watermelon in 1948 and pioneered a process that uses a chemical derived from the autumn crocus plant — colchicine — to double the chromosomes in a normal watermelon. He then crossbred the result with a normal plant and got a sterile and thus seedless hybrid, a mule of the melon world that he labeled American Seedless Watermelon Variety 313.
The farmer was Donald Johnson of Knox City, Texas, who grew mostly cotton and wheat, same as farmers in Knox County had done for years. One year he decided to put in a couple of acres of watermelons to see how they would do, and they did very well in the sandy loam soil of the Rolling Plains. He sold them out of his garage for awhile, then expanded his acreage.
One day, a stranger driving a car with out-of-state tags pulled up to the Johnson farmhouse, bag of seed in hand. It was O.J. Eigsti.
“This is seedless watermelon seed,” he told Johnson. “Would you like to try it?”
Up to that point, Eigsti had an easier time perfecting a seedless watermelon than he had in selling it. He co-founded the American Seedless Watermelon Corporation in 1954, but farmers weren’t interested in the extra time and expense. USDA basically told him to forget the whole thing. Seed companies assured him the idea would never catch on. And consumers didn’t seem to mind the indigestible seeds that accompanied every watermelon in the world for at least 5,000 years.
But Eigsti persisted. He determined that the soils and climate of the Rolling Plains would be a good place to grow his melons, so he went there looking for farmers and found Johnson. The two became friends, and Johnson began producing seedless watermelons by the ton. He formed the Johnson Melon Corp. in the 1980s, and shipped out 15 to 20 million tons of seedless watermelons every year.
There was a time when, if you bought a seedless watermelon, it probably came from Knox City, which the Texas Legislature designated the Seedless Watermelon Capital of the World in 1997. In 1986, the city began hosting the Donald Johnson Seedless Watermelon Festival each year during the last weekend of July to recognize Johnson for the recognition he brought to the city and county.
“All the seedless watermelons came from here during that time,” said Knox County Chamber of Commerce Director Vonnie Ivey. “It was a new idea at the time.”
What started as a radical experiment for an Indiana scientist and a Texas farmer in the late 70s is now mainstream. Texas Department of Agriculture statistics show that seedless varieties now account for 80 to 85 percent of the state’s watermelons. A USDA Economic Research Service report shows U.S. seedless watermelon shipments increasing from 51 percent in 2003 to nearly 85 percent in 2014.
But Knox City is not the seedless watermelon capital of the world anymore. Johnson died in the early 2000s. His son Dwayne kept the company going for a few years after that, but times had changed. Fertilizer was costly, and it was hard to find people to work the fields.
Knox County Agriculture Extension Agent Jerry Coplen said Knox County farmers don’t grow watermelons anymore, not because they don’t want to cash in on a potentially good crop but because they can’t.
“The two biggest limiting factors here are water and a labor shortage,” Coplen said. “Our aquifer is pretty shallow, and we’ve had to cut back on some of our cotton acres too. We just don’t have the water or the labor to grow watermelons and vegetables, not like we did then.”
The seedless watermelon boom may be over in Knox City, but it started there, and the festival goes on. Ivey said Lawrence Brothers, a local grocer, has provided the festival with melons for the last several years. This year’s festival is scheduled for July 29 and 30, starting on Friday the 29th with a downtown parade and continuing Saturday with fun and games, food, and live music at Knox City Park.
As for Eigsti, the inventor of the seedless watermelon, he lived to the ripe old age of 94, long enough to see seedless watermelons holding their own with the seeded varieties at his local produce stand. It only took a little more than 50 years.