The History of North Carolina’s Cantaloupe Festival
Ridgeway Historical Society vice-president Dan Bender says that, in a community of just about 1,500 people, the festival draws at least 5,000. Country and gospel singers croon throughout the day. Fifty vendors sell food and crafts, and the volunteer fire department cooks up about 1,500 quarts of Brunswick stew. And of course, there’s plenty of cantaloupe, which is a longstanding and proud tradition in Ridgeway.
N.C. historian David Cecelski (who appears in season five’s “A Food Truck and a Pear Tree”) writes that in the late 19th century, the rural community in Warren County attracted immigrants from Germany, Switzerland, France, and the British Isles, who all took up farming. Cecelski notes, “At its peak, Ridgeway’s farm cooperative was loading 14 railroad cars a day with cantaloupes.” Bender tells us that distinct soil conditions — red clay with a bit of loamy sand — made for the perfect breeding ground for cantaloupes. And somehow, among the sweetest in the nation. Simply put, the land offers good drainage and nutrients, with the added advantage of a prime climate: hot days and cool nights.
According to Visit NC, “It was in such popular demand that in 1932, 13,000 crates of ‘Pride of Ridgeway’ cantaloupes were shipped out of the little town.” At the historical society, Bender has collected records that show Manhattan restaurant menus of “Ridgeway cantaloupe” during the crop’s heyday (1920s-1940s). And as someone who comes from a generation of cantaloupe growers, he has his own memories, too.
“My uncle Gus had 50 big trucks he would haul up north,” Bender says. “In the 1960s, my grandmother gave my sister and I, teenagers, each an acre of cantaloupes. It was a lesson in how to handle money. We’d manage them on the side of the road. That’s how we earned enough to go to the movies, buy school clothes.”
A blight in the late 1950s dwindled the crop, and its yield never worked back up to its legendary potential. But Ridgeway farmers still grow cantaloupe every summer. And they celebrate it every July. “It’s a great reminder that rural areas are very important to our state,” says Bender.
For more information, read Cecelski’s delicious dispatch for the N.C. Folklife Institute here.