A Man and His Melons
When it comes to growing the best, the verdict is in for this Bogalusa lawyer.
Photographed by Cheryl Gerber
To hear John Gallaspy tell it, the Egyptians who buried King Tut were on to something, though so far he’s not sure of just what. When the Egyptians laid the boy king to rest in a pyramid, they sprinkled watermelon seeds in his tomb.
“Whether this was believed to bring pleasant dreams and unending springtime in the land of the beyond, or whether the decedent was planting when his labors ended, is apparently unknown,” says Gallaspy, 80.
But that may be about the only thing Gallaspy hasn’t figured out when it comes to citrullus vulgaris, those summertime treats known as watermelons.
And it doesn’t make any difference to whom you talk. You talk to anybody in and around Bogalusa from a convenience store clerk to the mayor and just mention the word “watermelons,” and they’ll just smile and point you over to Gallaspy’s law office “over thar” on Louisiana Avenue.
Back when parishes sometimes combined their offices, Gallaspy served as the assistant district attorney of both Washington and St. Tammany parishes. In effect, that made Gallaspy the district attorney of Washington Parish.
But the law and politics and his family aside, Gallaspy will tell you his first love is the all-Southern all-star watermelon. Just about anybody else in town will say the same thing about him.
“I was 10 years old when I planted my first melon,” Gallaspy says as he sits in a chair on his enclosed porch in an upscale section of Bogalusa. “That was in DeSoto Parish, a farming community. That’s where I’m from originally. As kids we’d sit around, and I would hear folks talking about how good their melons were and how good their neighbors’ watermelons were.”
Gallaspy’s wife, affectionately known as “Miss Dixie” around town, is outside getting the mail while her husband anxiously peers over chairs and around visitors to see if that all-important letter has come in.
“Back in 1942 I was obviously too young to go to war. I was on the farm up in DeSoto Parish. I raised a long row of melons with a horse and a six-inch turning plow. Hauling compost out of the barn, digging each melon hill. It was tough work, but I loved it. When I finally got to pull the melons I sold some in the family store for one-and-a-half cents per pound – which was high. I think lots of people bought them out of kindness to me, but still, they bought them. A 20-pound melon would bring 30 cents, and with 30 cents you could get six RC colas. And in 1942 if you had six RC colas you were on top of the world!”
To be sure, John Gallaspy has been on top of the “watermelon world” for as long as anybody can remember. For years, when he entered his watermelons in the annual melon festival that is linked to the Washington Parish Fair (perhaps Louisiana’s largest fair), other melon contestants all but went up to him, shook his hand and congratulated him before anybody had taken the first melon out of his or her truck.
“One year I won seven first-places with different varieties,” Gallaspy says, his voice suggesting an “aww, shucks t’weren’t nuthin” effort. “I was a bit hoggish that year. I won a whole bunch of them and I felt badly about that. They bill me as the Watermelon King of the fair, but that’s an exaggeration.”
Of course, you won’t see Gallaspy selling his watermelons from the back of a beat-up pickup truck along Lee Road in St. Tammany Parish. What you will see, however, are those oval, bright orange “John Gallaspy Watermelon” stickers on all his melons making their way through doors up and down Columbia Street and side streets all over Bogalusa.
“I usually try to sell enough melons just to pay for the fertilizers,” Gallaspy says. “But really, that is secondary. I want people to enjoy one of the greatest pleasures on earth – watermelons.”
A typical “Watermelon Run” for John Gallaspy?
“We’ll fill up the back of my truck and head out,” he says. “For instance, one week I remember taking a bunch of melons to the Methodist church. They cut those melons and divided them. On Tuesday we have the Rotary Club. They served up 15 to 20 melons, and we gave everybody there one to take home. Then we scattered a few around the neighborhood. It’s all given away. I love seeing people enjoy something that I planted. And I’ll tell you: 50 melons are gone pretty quickly.
My joy is in the planting, care of them and pulling. (You never say ‘harvesting’ when you’re talking about watermelons.) My secretary is a good sport. We set aside one day each year to deliver melons to the banks and various other people we can think of. We just close down the office, and she and I will take off with a truckload of melons and a big butcher knife. And if we find somebody who can’t use more than a half a melon, we split it in half. We’ll leave several at each bank all over town.”
Gallaspy disappears into another room and just as quickly reappears with an armload of seed catalogs: “Willhite Seed, Inc.” and “Twilley Seeds.” He thumbs rapidly through the catalogs, stopping on pages covered with brightly colored images of such summer delights as “Summer Sweet Brand, Variety 5244” and “Krimson Krunch,” “Cooperstown” (something tells you there are countless slices of these sold at the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame), “Crispy Red,” “Pasha Red,” “Treasure Chest,” “Sorbet,” “Carmen,” “Jamboree,” “Emperor” and many more. Another page; another cornucopia of bright red and brilliant yellow meaty watermelons. Gallaspy gives a brief history of most of the varieties depicted. He knows the “whos,” “whats,” “whens” and “whys” – a veritable genealogical encyclopedia of watermelons.
Gallaspy stretches out his large frame, and it’s hard to miss the framed invitation to his 60th birthday back on Nov. 14, 1992:
1932 – A Vintage Year, John Norman Gallaspy was born!
1942 – John’s first Watermelon Patch planted one early morn!
Come Celebrate 60 years of our wonderful Watermelon John
50 years of John’s Fabulous watermelons!”
Gallaspy has three sons: Whit, Lee and Gardner. Whit is a soldier physician who just returned from Afghanistan; Lee is a lawyer; and Gardner, a sales representative. Gallaspy says, naturally, his boys have worked the melon fields with him, and he would hope they could carry on the family tradition and share in the joy his avocation has brought him over the past eight decades. He praises Miss Dixie and her patience and tells her to look the other way when he comes home after a day in the watermelon patch with his blue jump suit covered in mud. He avers to talk of “steroids,” now being used in the watermelon fields to juice the growth and size of the melons. It should be noted that “steroids,” when used in connection to watermelon-growing, means to run tubes of sugar water into the roots of the young plants. “I’ve never done that, and in my heart, I sure hope that isn’t true. That’s just not fun,” he says. “Not the way to do things.”
Miss Dixie walks in, and Gallaspy spies the envelope in her hand from the LSU Agricultural Department. He grabs the envelope from his wife’s hand with all of the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store and tears it open.
“I kinda figured that,” Gallaspy says without telling anybody just what it is he had figured out before the LSU aggies confirmed it. His eyes run down a long list of chemicals that are hardly pronounceable. The letter is a reply to a soil sample that Gallaspy sent to LSU earlier.
“That’s a key ingredient,” Gallaspy says. “That’s what I may have to add to my soil before planting.”
Come to think of it, if the Egyptian growers had added a little potash to the soil, they may have come away with more than just a few seeds from Tut’s tomb.