By Norris Chambers

            Somewhere between cotton picking jobs and ‘possum skinning season Clifton picked up an offer from Lon Dawson that would let us make a little spending money. It sounded like one we might be able to do without any hard work or deep thinking. All we had to do was find him some watermelon juice. The watermelon season was about over and those still left in the field had practically no value. We had dozens of them in our field that would soon be fed to the hogs. Incidentally, hogs love watermelons almost as much as kids do!

            Lon Dawson was not a regular bootlegger. He didn’t make wine to sell but did it for his own use and because he liked to try every different kind he heard about. Somewhere he had heard about watermelon wine and wanted to turn out a few gallons. If the wine was as good as the watermelon it would be great.

            This hobby of Lon’s sometimes led him into light distilling.  Light distilling means that he didn’t make very much. He made his hard liquor with a large pressure cooker just like the ones that most farmers used for canning vegetables and meat. These big cookers had a lid that was held on by several bolts with thumb nuts. There was a pressure gauge on the lid and also a “pop-off valve” that would open and let steam escape if the pressure accidentally got too high. Lon modified the lid by adding a copper connection between the lid and the gauge and connecting a flexible tube. The tube was coiled through a tub of water and the end routed over the edge and into a jug. When properly prepared mash was inside the cooker and heat was applied beneath it the “good old mountain dew” began to drip into the jug. This process was too small to interest professional moonshiners but was large enough to quickly produce a bottle or two of medicinal spirits.

            This spirit hobbyist used regular milk cans to ferment his mash. The lids were not used on the cans but the tops were covered with cloth. The cloth allowed the fermenting gases to escape and kept bugs and small varmints out. The liquor mash consisted mostly of a mixture of some sort of grain, water, sugar and yeast for liquor and a fruit juice, sugar and yeast for wine. The liquor mash was distilled with the pressure cooker but the wine was fermented and bottled when it reached the proper stage in the process.

            This was to be his first experience with watermelon wine and he had offered us fifteen cents a gallon for clean, strained juice. He wanted juice from both red and yellow core melons.

We were to be careful and not juice any unripe melons or any green portions of ripe ones.

            Now that we had the big job to do it was time to decide how to get the juice out of the melons. Of course we could just cut one open and dig in with both hands, squeezing the juicy melon until it collapsed, giving up its juice. But that method was so crude that we decided to think of a better way. Clifton mentioned a clothes wringer and a washtub. We had once tried this trick for shelling peas. We loosened the rollers and fed the peas through while cranking the wringer. The system worked well on about half of the pods but many of them were too tight or two small and they had to be picked out and shelled by hand.

            We decided that the wringer wouldn’t work on the watermelon because the melon was too soft and wouldn’t have enough fiber to pull itself through the rollers. We had seen a grape press once that had a big wooden block that slid into a box with perforations on the bottom. This method worked well for grapes and would probably work just as well for watermelons. But we thought of a simpler method.  We sawed two pieces about a foot long off of a 1X12 board. We mounted these near the end of two handles that were hinged just below the boards. When the handles were worked up and down the two boards came together. The idea was to cut watermelon portions and place them on the bottom board then bring the upper handle down. This would flatten the melon and squeeze all the juice out of it. We were holding it over a washtub so there would be no juice loss. When we got a tub almost full we would force the juice through a heavy burlap strainer into a milk can and would then have clean, pure watermelon juice.

            The idea worked and we soon had between fifteen and twenty gallons of prime watermelon juice. Don was well pleased and gave us three dollars for the lot. We told him if he needed more to let us know. He didn’t ask for any more so I guess he made all the watermelon wine he wanted. The hogs enjoyed the rest of the melon crop.

            Was the melon project a lot of fun? Like most of our projects it had its funny moments – like the small accident when Clifton got his finger caught in the press and the red blood mixed with the red watermelon juice! The mixture no doubt added to the nutritional value of the wine!