The Journey of the Handled Ancient American Watermelon, from Native American Artifact to your Garden

By Shannon McCabe

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The cave similar to the one Art Combe found crookneck watermelon seeds.

 

Some people love murder mysteries.  I have the same feeling, only I like to unravel the mysteries of plants." These are the words of Art Combe, who was also known as the “Wizard of Wasatch County.”  He was an intrepid plant breeder of the early 20th century and a seed sleuth of the American Southwest. Art’s lifelong passion for horticulture and fascination with naturally breeding unique and hardy plants led him to one of the most fantastic finds in seed saving history.

 

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Art Combe, the Wizard of Wasatch, was an avid and dedicated seed saver and plant breeder!

 

Art Combe was raised in the rugged, wild west, born at the turn of the 20th century in Ogden, Utah. As a young lad on the American frontier, Art’s family cultivated much of their own food. A trip to town was a major journey, as they lived many miles from the nearest outpost. Much of Art’s childhood was spent reveling in the world of plants in the family’s garden. He also learned to graft and cross breed for new and exciting varieties at his grandfather’s nursery.

 

In 1914, the local newspaper began to run a column written by the famous Luther Burbank (the father of the Russet-Burbank potato and the Shasta Daisy). Art became enamored with the mechanics of plant breeding and found a hero in the legendary horticulturist. Inspired by Burbank’s writings on plant improvement and breeding, Art took to the library, reading up on all things horticulture. From humble beginnings, a master plant breeder and seed collector was born.

 

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The ancient vessel that held the crookneck watermelon seeds.

 

By the early 1920s, Art was teaching horticulture to Navajo Indian students at the White River Agency School on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in White River, Arizona. Art was an avid prospector and artifact collector, and the dramatic and largely uncharted landscape of this desert area was fantastic for exploring and artifact hunting. One day Art and his students decided to explore an abandoned sandstone cave. Deep in the cave, safely nestled on a natural rock ledge and covered in a thick deposit of guano and sand, Art found an ancient Native American artifact: a small bottle. The container was a woven basket made of strips of yucca. The bottle was stopped with a cork and dipped in pine pitch to make a protective seal. Much to Art’s delight, the vessel was filled with brilliant red watermelon seeds.

 

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The ancient vessel that held the crookneck watermelon seeds pictured with other artifacts. 

 

Art made his discovery in the early 1920s, before major efforts towards conservation of artifacts in the U.S. In those days there was no organization to help with archeological discoveries. Instead, he brought the seeds home and sowed them in his garden, carefully tending the living time capsules. Of the two hundred or so seeds found in the bottle, only about twelve germinated. His find also predated many of the techniques that we use to study artifacts today. Even if he had tried to figure out the age of the seeds in the pot, the technology to decipher their age did not yet exist!

 

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Ancient crookneck watermelon growing in the field at Quail Hollow Farm.

 

Art began cultivating his ancient watermelon seeds in 1931. The excitement became more palpable as the winding vines grew, inch by inch. As the fruits began to develop, Art was astounded at the unusual shape of the melons--they were unlike any watermelon he had ever seen! The fruits were crookneck: a round watermelon that tapered at the end into a perfect handle. Art presumed that this unique trait was bred by the ancient stewards of this variety as a way to more easily carry the watermelon as a food source on journeys.

 

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Fresh cut ancient crookneck watermelon! It is amazingly delicious!

 

Art excitedly cracked open the oddly shaped fruit and was delighted to find a pleasantly sweet and juicy flesh. The Ancient Native Americans had an appreciation for the same tasty red fleshed watermelons that we still love today. Art bred the watermelons for a more traditional, round shape over several decades. He did not see the commercial value in the oddly shaped, crookneck melon. The variety that Art selectively bred over many years is known today as the Ancient Watermelon: it is a large, round melon with red seeds and a deep red, juicy flesh with exceptionally sweet flavor. While Art selected the large round melons and “bred out” the trait for handles, he noted that each year he would always get a few rogue melons that reverted to the original Native American handled shape.

 

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Ancient Watermelon is another stunning watermelon variety from Art Combe's collection!

 

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company has an ancient watermelon listed in our catalog. Over a decade ago, a small handwritten letter and a packet of seeds were sent to the company. The letter only stated that the seeds were found in an Arizona cave and believed to be ancient. The letter was accidentally misplaced, and there was no mention of Art Combe, so the description in the catalog simply stated that the seeds were believed to have been found in an Arizona cave. Fortunately, an avid seed saver named Gregg Batt from Utah contacted Baker Creek. He had been growing a large green watermelon that occasionally grew in a strange crookneck shape. The seeds had been given to him by his father-in-law who had received them from Art Combe. Gregg had been told the story of Art Combe finding the seeds in a cave, and Gregg suggested that the ancient watermelon listed in our catalog may be related to Art Combe’s cave watermelon.

 

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Gregg Batt holds an Ancient Watermelon!

 

Baker Creek’s team of seed sleuths became determined to find the elusive handle-shaped watermelon, hoping that the original handled form had not been entirely bred out of existence. Because Art Combe had passed away many years ago, the team worried that the seeds had vanished without ever being stored in a seed bank or kept alive in the hands of seed savers.

 

Shortly after the tip from Gregg Batt, another home gardener and seed saver contacted Baker Creek describing a unique crookneck watermelon that many gardeners in her Southwestern valley grow. She collected seeds from neighbors and gardening pals, each with slightly unique but distinctly related, handled watermelons. When she asked each grower where they had received their seeds, each answered the same: they had been gifted seeds from a prominent local seed saver and melon farmer.   

 

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Passionate seed saver Cliven Bundy played an integral part in saving crookneck watermelons.

 

Cliven Bundy was one of Art’s old gardening pals and had received the seeds from Art in the 1970s. Art entrusted Cliven with a few precious seeds poured directly from the vessel. These were seeds for the handled watermelon, not the large round melon that Art had been selectively breeding since the 1930s. Cliven’s reputation as an expert melon farmer reassured Art that he would continue to keep the seeds in production. Bundy shared seeds of the ancient watermelon with countless local gardeners, some of whom liked the handled trait and selectively bred for watermelons with handles.  

 

Bundy is better known for his involvement in a nationally publicized dispute over paying to graze cattle on public land. He had passed these seeds along with his other precious heirloom melon varieties to our Southwest gardener friend, just a few hours before Bundy’s fellow protester Levoy Finicum was shot at the infamous Oregon wildlife refuge occupation. Shortly after the shooting, Bundy was taken into custody and has been held without bail since. The last known steward of the ancient watermelon, Bundy, is Federally incarcerated at a prison outside of Las Vegas, Nevada.  

 

With this news, the Baker Creek team hit the road for the Nevada Southern Detention Center for an interview with the famous, or infamous, cattle rancher and melon ace. Although he was a far cry from his home garden in Bunkerville, NV, Cliven recounted his lifelong passion for melon growing and breeding with enthusiasm that transported us from the within prison walls, right to his beloved melon patch.

 

Bundy lit up as he recounted his lifetime of breeding melons. His personal collection of unique melons range from one casaba melon called Buffet that he had been breeding as the perfect melon for serving at the Las Vegas Casinos, to an historic local variety that he describes as having Gila Monster skin patterns. Art and Cliven shared an infectious appetite for breeding and seed saving. Art considered Bundy a safe steward of the ancient watermelon, given his passion for watermelons and seed saving.

 

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Ancient crookneck watermelon seeds display a beautiful reddish hue!

 

Bundy faithfully grew these seeds out for over 30 years. He considers this variety one of the very best tasting, and he expressed deep gratitude to the Native Americans who carefully selected and saved the seeds for future generations.

 

He also explained his unique dry farming technique. Bundy and his wife Carol were famous locally for their incredibly sweet melons and watermelons. Bundy was the only known “commercial” (small scale) grower and seed saver of the ancient handled watermelon, and the fate of the Ancient Handled Watermelon would be in jeopardy had he not passed seeds along to other seed savers.

 

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Baker Creek seed sleuth Shannon McCabe holds a crookneck watermelon! 

 

These special handled melons have been grown out at the Baker Creek gardens with much anticipation, and a small quantity has been made available for the 2018 catalog season. The handled watermelon is often grown using a dry irrigation technique. It is incredibly drought and heat tolerant, a superior desert watermelon with juicy red flesh and bright red seeds. The unique gourd shaped handle makes for easier transport. We hope that those seed savers who grow the ancient watermelon will enjoy this fascinating piece of living history and continue to save the seeds year after year. We owe very special thanks to the Ancient Southwest Native Americans who tended this incredible variety and saved the seeds.

 

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Art Combe's grandson Kirk Combe in his kitchen with crookneck watermelon and artifacts.

 

Just How Ancient?

 

There is no way to tell just how old the watermelon that Art found really is. One can only speculate, but given several factors, including the location and vessel that the seeds were found in, this Ancient watermelon could be several hundred, if not a few thousand, years old!

 

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Baker Creek founder and owner Jere Gettle joyfully discussing seed history with Kirk Combe.

Native American Watermelon?

In an interview from the 1980s, Art mentioned that the University of Arizona called his find a “true American Melon” and that he had been told that it was perhaps an ancient cross of different cucurbits native to the U.S., much like the ancient cross of wild maize and teosinte that resulted in corn. This would mean that it is not a true watermelon from Africa, but a look-alike relative. This theory explains why such an ancient vessel contained seeds from an African crop that was not introduced to the U.S. by the Spanish until the 1500s. If this theory is correct, the watermelon could have been bred around the same time as other New World crops such as corn, squash, and beans.

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Original ancient seed vessel found in a cave by Art Combe.

The Vessel 

The vessel in which the seeds were found serves as a time capsule with clues to who the original gardener may have been. The small bottle was made of strips of yucca woven into a basket shape and sealed watertight by a layer of pine pitch (resin). The Ancient Anasazi basket weavers were famous for making this very type of vessel especially for food or seed storage. There are three periods of Anasazi Basket weavers, ranging from 300 B.C to 750 A.D. It is also possible that a later inhabitant of the cave found the ancient Anasazi bottle and used it for storing, or a later generation of Anasazi relative had continued the tradition of basking making and found it an excellent seed storage vessel.

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Art Combe found the crookneck watermelon seeds in a vessel inside a cave similar to this one.

Learning from Ancient Seed Storing Practices 

One can take note of the vessel and cave conditions to learn about best seed storage conditions. The woven container was sealed with pitch to create an airtight seal, excluding light and moisture, two factors known to diminish the life of a seed. The container was tucked away on a ledge off of the ground, kept safe from animals, or flooding. The cave provided a consistent cool, dark and dry storage space. Seed bank curators have studied other archaeological seed sites to mimic the ideal storage conditions that led to extra long seed shelf life. Seeds for the thought-to-be extinct Judean date palm tree (nicknamed Methuselah) that were found perfectly preserved in a fortress ruin in Israel, were carbon dated at 2000 years old. Researchers attribute the incredible storage life to the cool, dry location. More recently a Russian team of scientists found a cache of wildflower seeds in Siberia, stored deep in the permafrost alongside wooly mammoth tusks and bones. These seeds were radiocarbon dated to 32,000 years old! Both the seeds in Israel and Siberia germinated and are growing; both were stored in cool to freezing locations and excluded from light. Modern day refrigeration allows us to store seeds for longer when placed in airtight jars or plastic bags to exclude moisture. For those looking for a more sustainable and inexpensive seed storage option, look to the Tesuque Pueblo Farm in New Mexico. The farmers in this community have created a seed bank out of cob and straw bales--a cool, dark and dry location for seeds to be stored in airtight glass jars.

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Statues depicting the founding Mormon Fathers and Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

Mormons, rugged homesteaders of the Old West

During the late 1800s, Mormons, who had been plagued by persecution in the East in the mid 19th century, made the long, arduous journey from Missouri to Utah’s Great Basin, where they settled and began to farm. Although the rural Utah landscape is not easy to farm, this did not deter industrious Mormon farmers from establishing a heritage of homesteading that endures to this day. Many Mormon farmers have supplied Baker Creek with excellent super hardy seeds, saved and cultivated over time by generations of Mormon farmers. Art Combe and Cliven Bundy both descended from Mormon pioneers and inherited a perseverance and ingenuity from their hardscrabble ancestors.

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Seed saver Cliven Bundy played a very important part in saving the crookneck watermelon.

Cliven Bundy Melon Farmer

Cliven Bundy and his wife Carol have grown the ancient watermelon on their family homestead for over 30 years, since Art Combe gave them some of the seeds from the vessel. A lifelong melon farmer, Bundy learned how to grow watermelons and other melons from his mother who grew them on her family’s farm. The Bundy Ranch was settled by Cliven’s father in the 1940s. Bundy’s ancestors were among the original Mormon pioneers, who in 1877, settled the Virgin Valley--a harsh, arid, geographically isolated area located on what is now a crossroads of present day Nevada, Arizona and Utah. The Bundys have operated a roadside stand selling watermelons and various types of melons for decades. Over the years, they have developed a reputation for growing some of the finest melons in the area.

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Shannon McCabe and Kirk Combe proudly display Art Combe's ancient watermelons.

The Wizard of Wasatch 

Art Combe’s grandson, Kirk fondly remembers his larger-than-life grandfather, and he recalls him as a real plant whisperer with an affinity for eccentric plant attributes and the inquisitive nature of a mad scientist. Kirk recalls his grandfather’s apricot and pear trees, each with about 6 different varieties grafted onto one root stock. Art was also known to graft a tomato with a potato, long before ketchup and fries grafting became popular. He was also a world renown cactus expert. University researchers would consult with him and bring him oddities from all over the world to tend in his magical garden. Art was an accomplished desert nurseryman and plant breeder as well as a prolific pistachio farmer. In about the last ten years of Art’s life, he completely lost his vision--many neighbors recall seeing Art plant his garden and even graft trees entirely from memory, a true testament to his love for horticulture.

Although Art Combe passed away several years ago, his passion for watermelon growing and artifact hunting lives on in his grandson, Kirk. He told fantastic stories of his grandfather’s gardening prowess--from his seemingly magical dry farming techniques, to Frankenstein-inspired breeding endeavors, including a bit of mischievous meddling in growing his competitive giant watermelons, attempting to fashion a makeshift IV drip out of an old beer can and tubes. Art entrusted to his grandson Kirk one of his most fantastic finds, the small woven vessel that the ancient watermelon seeds were found in.

The-West-Desert-Nevada-Utah-DSC03482West Desert of Nevada and Utah is the backdrop for dry farming.

Ancient Watermelon Dry Farming Technique 

Art was dedicated to the practice of water conservation and was a savvy desert gardener who knew that the less water a melon received, the more delicious it would taste. For decades he grew the ancient watermelon using a dry farming technique, where instead of watering the plants daily, he would gently cultivate around the plant during its young establishment phase. Cliven Bundy also detailed his unique dry farming technique for us at our visit to him in prison.  

Bledsoe-Farm-DSC03341Laura and Monty Bledsoe have grown the crookneck watermelon for the past 7 years.

Quail Hollow Farmstewards of the handled watermelon

Laura and Monty Bledsoe left the big city lights of their hometown, Las Vegas, to start farming in rural southern Nevada. They run a C.S.A. farm in Overton, Nevada, and have been growing the special handled watermelons for many years. The Bledsoes, along with so many other gardeners in their area, received seeds from Cliven Bundy. Unlike many of the other melon growers who have tried growing the ancient watermelon, Laura quite liked the unique handled shape of the ancient crookneck watermelon, and for the past 7 years she has been specifically selecting for the crookneck trait. These specially selected seeds are the closest known to the original shape that Art Combe initially encountered when he first grew the seeds out in the 1920s.

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The West Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada displays arid conditions perfect for dry farming.

Dry Farming for Sweeter fruit and Water Conservation 

Both Art Combe and Cliven Bundy grew the Ancient watermelon using a dry farming technique. Cliven learned to grow melons in the harsh desert on his parents’ melon farm. He grows his melons only watering 2 times throughout the entire growing season in the extreme Nevada summer where temperatures frequently reach 115 degrees. He has found that dry farming and careful cultivation are much better than just irrigating the plants.

The Bundy Dry Farming Method

This worked for Cliven with the soil on his land. Everyone’s soil and the amount of moisture they receive is quite variable, so results will vary. We think it would be fun to experiment with a trial patch in our own garden. Plow deep---15-18 inches and let soil air out for a few days before spreading fertilizer. Disk once lightly, not more that 3 inches deep. Flood entire field overnight, soaking 3-4 feet deep at least, and let sit for a week. Disk just 3 inches deep (this seals in the moisture). Plant seeds into dry dirt 2-3 inches deep, right on top of wet surface; seed is under dry upper crusty layer. Don’t water until 71 days later; the plants survive 115 degree heat and blistering sun with no weeds because weeds need water to grow.

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Gregg Batt, Shannon McCabe and Kirk Combe agree! Crookneck watermelon is tasty!

 

Old World Crops in the New World

 

The story of the Ancient watermelon poses major questions, as the watermelon is a crop native to Africa, but the vessel in which the seeds were found is a signature of the Basket Maker II Ancient Anasazi (1500 BC to AD 50). Could this watermelon be evidence of pre-Columbian trans oceanic contact? This would not be the first time that food crops have been used as evidence in theories of pre-Columbian contact. The sweet potato has been used to support theories of pre-Columbian contact between Polynesia and the Americas.

 

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Art Combe discovered the ancient crookneck watermelon seed vessel in a cave like this one.

Cave location: The Mogollon Rim, Arizona

Baker Creek photographer Brian Dunne visited the Mogollon Rim in Arizona-- a gorgeous landscape with sandstone caves and a unique, oasis-like climate. Brian had hoped, on a long shot, to possibly find the cave where the ancient watermelon was found. He wanted to meet the people of the area and get a feel for what Art’s journey must have been like. Brian connected with a Tanto Apache farmer and ranger named Robert Estrada. Robert discussed the history of the Mogollon Rim and its inhabitants, explaining that the Mogollon Rim has been Tanto Apache land since 1365. Rob grows Native crops using traditional techniques and explained that the Apache were farmers. Rob also explained that the area comprising the Mogollon Rim includes a unique oasis of moisture in the otherwise arid climate, this area is host to moisture loving plants that cannot survive the surrounding desert. This unique landscape sets a mystical scene for Art’s discovery.

Mogollon-Rim-Montezuma-Castle-National-Monument-Arizona-Mogollon-Rim-Apache-DSC05480 Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona, sets the backdrop of the original farmers.

 

Just How Ancient?

 

There is no way to tell how old the watermelon that Art found really is. One can only speculate, but given several factors, including the location and vessel that the seeds were found in, this Ancient watermelon could be several hundred, if not a few thousand, years old! But the story of the Ancient watermelon poses major questions. Could it be a true American melon, or could this watermelon be evidence of Pre-Columbian transoceanic contact? The watermelon is known to be a crop native to Africa, but the vessel in which the seeds were found is a signature of the Basket Maker II Ancient Anasazi (1500 BC to AD 50). This would not be the first time that food crops have been used as evidence in theories of pre-Columbian contact; the sweet potato has been used to support theories of pre- Columbian contact between Polynesia and the Americas. In the book World Trade and Biological Exchanges before 1492, J. Sorenson and C. Johannessen scientifically layout evidence of distribution for nearly 100 species of plants, 19 species of micro-predators, 75 other organisms using archaeological, historical and linguistic sources, ancient art, and conventional natural science studies. “This distribution could not have been due merely to natural transfer mechanisms, nor can it be explained by early human migrations to the New World via the Bering Strait route.” They lay out a case for transoceanic voyages across both major oceans in both directions completed between the seventh millennium BCE and the time of Columbus. 


One of the most important plants to study on this topic is amaranth. It is native to the New World but also deeply entrenched among remote peoples of Asia, having been grown there since antiquity, as well. “In Mesoamerica, the cultivation of a grain amaranth began as early as 4,000 BCE.” We at Baker Creek received samples of ancient grasses harvested at Mystery Mountain, Los Lunas, NM, where puzzling ancient Iberian paleo-Hebraic inscriptions, ruins and ancient Semitic symbols for the constellations were found. Also found at the site were amazing terraces where ancient non-native grasses or grain were grown. There is a heated debate on the authenticity of this site, as there is on many of the topics we have addressed here. Our mission is to be the librarian and tell the story of the seed.  

 

Gettle-Family-Pictures-2017-LSS-000_2088Malia, Jere, Emilee and Sasha Gettle (pictured above) joined seed sleuths, McCabe and Dunne!

Cast of Characters

 

The whole Gettle family, Baker Creek staff writer Shannon McCabe, and photographer Brian Dunne set out on a road trip adventure west to New Mexico to meet the cast of characters responsible for keeping the Native American handled watermelon and its story alive. Although Art Combe passed away several years ago, his passion for watermelon growing and artifact hunting lives on in his grandson, Kirk. He told fantastic stories of his grandfather’s gardening prowess--from his seemingly magical dry farming techniques, to Frankenstein-inspired breeding endeavors, including a bit of mischievous meddling in growing his competitive giant watermelons, attempting to fashion a makeshift IV drip out of an old beer can and tubes. Art entrusted to his grandson Kirk one of his most fantastic finds, the small woven vessel that the ancient watermelon seeds were found in.

 

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Kirk Combe fondly smiles when remembering his grandfather's seed legacy.

 

We are so grateful to Kirk, seed saver Gregg Batt that re-introduced the seed to us, the friends, neighbors and family of Art and Cliven for keeping the seed and its story alive, and for their incredible hospitality. 

The current strain of Ancient Watermelon that we sell is an Art Combe strain selected for a standard watermelon shape, though some may still throw handles. We are working hard to provide seeds in 2018 that have been selected for the amazing handled shape. We will keep you posted on this development. Please watch the Baker Creek video of our “ancient watermelon adventure out west”! 

 

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Detail of the ancient crookneck watermelon's most unique trait, it's crookneck!

 

Watch the video of the entire adventure here!