The story of Watermelon Park and the Clarke County family that invented the bluegrass festival
Drive by Watermelon Park on any summer day, and you’ll see between a dozen and several hundred people enjoying a picnic, a river float, some fishing. Talk to John U. Miller, Jr., or Junior as he’s known and you will hear a story that belongs in the pantheons of music history and bootstrap-pulling entrepreneurship.
It begins in about 1928, when Miller’s father John, Sr. had been turned loose from his family’s home in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. He was told to go find work to support himself. “Dad was one of 13 kids,” said Miller.
One night they all sat down to a meal of homemade bread and soup made with bark that his mother had stripped off the trees. “The three oldest brothers were told they had to go, they had to find work to support themselves, because the family couldn’t do it anymore,” recounts Miller. “Dad was 15. Can you imagine that?”
The brothers headed out westward together, but ended up going separate ways, with John Sr. deciding to head back east by hanging around the tracks and hopping trains.
“He was a hobo,” Miller said. After searching up and down the east coast, John Sr. heard there was work in Clarke County, and hopped off the train at Old Chapel. He was directed to Springsbury Farm, where he worked for a couple years before answering a call for laborers to help enlarge the Route 7 route through Snicker’s Gap pass, which would lead to a replacement bridge spanning the Shenandoah in 1939. “He was making 55 cents an hour—a darn good wage then—digging the gap,” Miller said.
With his earnings, John Sr. bought a horse and some farm equipment, and started growing watermelons on a patch of river bottomland north of what is now Watermelon Park. With his eye on expanding his crop, he approached C.E. Price, who owned the 300-acre farm along the river just south of Miller’s patch. They agreed on a 3-year rental agreement of $500 a year. “there was no way Dad could afford the $12,000 sale price Mr. Price was asking,” Miller explained.
Determined to sell enough watermelons from 1936 to 1939 to purchase the property, John Sr. nevertheless faced failure and expressed concern to his wife Rose toward the end of the 3-year lease.
John Jr. and his crystal blue eyes tell the story: “Dad never drank, never smoked, never cussed. But he did not hesitate to grab the gun if someone messed with his watermelon patch. So one evening, a car pulls up down there, and a guy gets out with his fishin’ pole and goes tramping across the watermelon patch to the river. So Dad went down to ‘fill ‘im up.’ Well, wouldn’t you know, that man was the head produce buyer for Acme grocery stores.”
And with that, John Sr. was selling watermelons to Acme. “So Dad started growing more watermelons,” said Miller. “They were piled high as a house. But he didn’t have a reliable way to get them to the stores in Charles Town, Martinsburg, and Hagerstown.”
With the assistance of Mr. Price’s truck, the watermelons were distributed, and a thriving business was launched. John Miller, Sr., bought the 300-acre farm in 1939. “Yeah, people used to say he could throw a quarter across the room, and it’d be a 50-cent piece by the time he walked over to pick it up,” John Jr. chuckled about his father’s good fortune and good sense.
The senior Miller continued to grow his watermelon business, renting bottomland up and down the river, planting over 100 acres of melons at a time. In 1942, at the age of 6, John Jr. was set up with a wagon of melons at the corner of Route 7 and Chilly Hollow Road (where Nall’s is now located), Friday to Sunday, during the season. “Might be six cars go by a day, but every one of ‘em stopped and bought a watermelon,” John Jr. recalls.
Watermelons were something of a novelty around here at that time. Typically grown in the south, they had to travel a long, hot way to get here, by which time they were mushy and sour. The Millers grew just one kind, the Cannonball, an heirloom variety known for its drought-tolerance, large size, fast growth, and sweet, bright red fruit. A fresh, crisp watermelon must certainly have been an exotic treat for weary travelers and local passers-by.
In the 1950s, the watermelon wagon was expanded into a full-fledged fruit and vegetable stand where the Millers sold a variety of fruit and vegetables, many grown in their five greenhouses flanking Route 7. John Jr. ran the stand for over 45 years. Before his father died in 1995, he said to Miller, “June (his nickname for his son), go back to that old place on the river. Spend some time, spend some money, and it’ll make you some money.”
In the early 1940s, there was no mail delivery to the mountain folks living across the river. There was a long line of mailboxes along the road on the Miller property, to which people would boat across the river, guitars and banjos in tow, to pick up their mail and gather to listen and play music. “Dad loved the music, so he built a stage, decided to have a Watermelon Festival, and invited the Carter Family as the first act.” The stage was indeed set.
Three Sundays a year in late August through early September, John Sr. held the watermelon/bluegrass festival, advertising on the back page of the Winchester Evening Star and selling 10-cent chances on watermelons. The earnings from that would pay the $10-$15 needed to compensate the entertainment. “He was just crazy about bluegrass. But he’d hire Bill Monroe on a Sunday, and not 200 people would come. But they’d all buy a watermelon,” recounts Miller.
Knowing there could and should be more—more people and more music—John Sr. appealed to music promoter Don Owens at Washington DC’s TV Channel 5 for help in “bringing every bluegrass music group there is” to his farm for one day.
That day was August 10, 1960. Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers, and other top names in bluegrass showed up to play for a crowd of 7,000 people. “Traffic was backed up from here to Route 7,” Miller said. Tickets were a buck apiece.
From 1960 to 1979, the Watermelon Festival grew alongside the melons, attracting some of the biggest names in bluegrass and country music, including Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley, George Jones, and Loretta Lynn. “Johnny Cash hired the Statler Brothers on that stage. Porter Wagner hired Dolly Parton,” Miller declared.
The quality of the music was indisputable, and the crowds grew to the five digits. By the end of the 70s, tens of thousands of people were descending on the riverside plot for the annual festival to listen, frolic, and occasionally raise a ruckus. “They were drinkin, takin’ drugs, streakin’,” Miller explains. “Dad didn’t like any of that; that was sinnin’ to him.”
At the last festival, in 1979, while Merle Haggard was singing Fightin’ Side of Me, a disgruntled customer shot and wounded a belt buckle vendor and two other young men. “Dad got on the stage and shut it down right then and there. That was it. It broke his heart,” remembers Miller. The perpetrator, a postmaster from Sterling, Va., was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Lawsuits were filed and subsequently dismissed, and John Sr. paid the hospital bills of the injured, according to Miller.
Over the next twenty or so years, the campground sat relatively quiet. People still camped, gathered, and utilized the river access, and there were occasional gospel music concerts, but the big crowds and big bluegrass names were no longer invited.
Meanwhile, Miller’s Fruit Stand flourished and John Jr. toiled with his memories of playing music himself—he had travelled around in his own greyhound bus with his band, and signed to MGM records, a major label, in the 60s and 70s. This had been the dream—the bus, the band, and the label—he had told his skeptical father early on he would achieve. Indeed, he achieved it, though he found more of a reception in Canada than the States.
Directly across the river at Shepherd’s Ford, in the 1970s and 80s, Frazer Watkins was working at his mother Gertie Watkins’ retreat center, where small groups gathered to listen to gospel concerts, meditate, and enjoy the peace and quiet. Frazer and John Jr. tell a parallel story of Mrs. Watkins and Mr. Miller not quite seeing eye to eye from bank to bank. “Mom wanted to know when Mr. Miller had his events scheduled so she could schedule hers around them,” said Watkins. “But I guess he was afraid she wanted to shut him down or something. Anyway, they were not the best of friends.”
The county subsequently stepped in to mediate and measure decibel levels, resulting in the Watermelon Park stage being moved to face away from the river.
Frazer Watkins had a deeply instilled love and ear for music from around the world and around the block. His musician friend Dave Van Deventer (of the band Furnace Mountain) often walked his dog by Watermelon Park in the early 2000’s, wondering what the place was all about. As Watkins filled him in on its rich and varied history, they, with the input of Dwayne Brooke (of the band The Woodshedders) started plotting to resurrect the festival, recruit excellent regional and local music talent, and promote it. By the time Frazer had talked with a receptive John Jr. about the plan and they had received approval from the county, the newly formed Shepherds Ford Productions had 90 days to put together the Watermelon Park Fest in 2004.
Several local groups, including Furnace Mountain and The Woodshedders, played the event to an estimated audience of 500. “There was a flood 24 hours before the event, and we had to completely move the setup, so we weren’t sure ANYone would come,” recalls Watkins.
Now, nearing the 10th anniversary of Watermelon Park Fest, Watkins beams with gratitude about his place in its evolution. “I am so privileged to be a part of this legacy. I feel like I’ve been given a gift, one I take very, very seriously. I get to look far into the past of great musicians, and far into the future of great musicians.” He adds that the park has allowed others, like his daughter, to further themselves in their academic studies by weaving the history of Watermelon Park for masters’ level theses and film projects.
“We work well together,” said Frazer of John Jr.
“Never, ever have I ever doubted him,” Miller said of Frazer.
A few years ago, they agreed the park stage should return to its original location on the southwest side of the campground, facing the river.
The 10th anniversary of the resurrected Watermelon Park Fest, September 26–28, will feature Del McCoury, J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, and—get this—Bobby Osborne, 53 years after he played the first bluegrass festival at Watermelon Park. The crowds now number around 3,500, and management does not want that number to exceed 5,000—this, to keep the event manageable, intimate, and enjoyable for all festivalgoers and neighbors.
Miller and Watkins plan to continue to bring a few premier music events to Watermelon Park every year. Watkins is looking to national arts and cultural organizations to help bring additions like dance and the spoken word to the musical experience. “We really want to cultivate young musicians and artists, give them exposure, help them on their way,” he said.
There are now over 1,000 bluegrass festivals worldwide. Many people credit Bluegrass Day at Watermelon Park as being the very first. There is no doubt that it enjoys and perpetuates a legacy of excellent music and rabid community support.
More Than Melons & Music
As most locals and all visitors know, Watermelon Park isn’t just about music. Having a river run through it brings thousands of people to its grassy, shady banks every year from April to November. Visitors can enjoy camping, fishing, picnicking, canoeing, tubing, kayaking, and simply splashing about in the old Shenandoah. And there are 100 sites offering water and electric and a freshly renovated bathhouse for campers, short and long-term.
The Watermelon Park General Store offers everything from fishing bait and licenses to ramen noodles and hula-hoops, in addition to flotation device rentals. Hope Miller, John Jr.’s daughter-in-law, happily serves up hand-dipped ice cream cones from a new stand at the park entrance. Eagles and herons fish from the river and children splash in its cool rapids.
And these days, John Miller, Jr., can be found tending his own watermelons. It’s a story that’s gone full circle, the evolution of a bucolic park stretching acres along the riverside welcoming thousands of visitors a year to enjoy entertainment and camaraderie.
And it all started in the 1930s with a young, hungry man who had a love for music and a green thumb. It is a true story of guts, glory, and generations of folks coming together to make beautiful music.
Contact info: Visit Watermelon Park at 3332 Lockes Mill Road; on the web at www.watermelonpark.com, or call 540.955.4803.
For tickets and information on Watermelon Park Fest, visit www.watermelonparkfest.com or www.shepherdsford.com.