Let's Reminisce: The story of Pecos cantaloupes
By Jerry Lincecum
Aug 1, 2018
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One response to my columns about watermelons was this question: What has happened to the Pecos cantaloupes we used to count on getting every year?  So I did a little research and learned a great deal about the history of Pecos cantaloupes.

Longtime residents of Pecos, Texas, associate the title of “Mr. Pecos Cantaloupe” with a man named M. L. Todd. A state historical marker recognizes him as the “father of the Pecos cantaloupe industry.”  What was so special about those Pecos cantaloupes and have they become extinct?

The traditional Pecos cantaloupe had a small seed cavity and a corresponding abundance of orange flesh. The flesh’s peculiar sweetness was created by a combination of the potassium in the soil in which the cantaloupes were grown and the long hours of dry sunshine that nourished them, abetted by the magnesium and calcium salts in the water with which they are irrigated.

Potassium favors the accumulation of sugars in the melons, and the salinity of the water prevented them from absorbing too much moisture, which would blunt the sweetness. For decades, a huge swath of potassium-rich soil just west of Pecos produced what many Texans swore were the sweetest and best cantaloupes. But the number of Pecos melons available has declined drastically because the cantaloupe business has changed so much in just the last 25 years. 

Overall, our state’s share of the cantaloupe market has been in serious decline since the 1990s.  By 2000, the acreage had dropped to 3,000, and in the past few years, it has been reduced to about 100 acres. One major reason is competition from imported cantaloupes (Mexico and Central America).  Unfortunately, these melons vary tremendously in taste and quality.

Cantaloupes, which are picked and processed by hand, are a labor-intensive crop.  The first melon pickers and packers in Pecos were largely migrant workers, many from Mexico.   At the height of the picking season, the Pecos growers of cantaloupes had on their payroll thousands of migrant workers who received very low wages.

But labor costs rose steadily, and then farmers saw the water table start to fall.  The price of natural gas (which fueled the water pumps that irrigated the fields) also begin to rise. Hybrid seed cost escalated, going from $6 an acre in 1977 to $100 in 1997.  Adding up all these costs, farmers found that each crate of cantaloupes they sold for $18 was costing them as much as $35 to produce.  The expenses were just too high.

It was the railroad that first made Pecos cantaloupes famous.  M.L. Todd, came to Pecos from New Mexico in 1916 and bought an interest in an irrigated farm, where he and a partner, D.T. McKee, planted cantaloupes with seed from Rocky Ford, Colorado. They contracted with the dining-car service of the Texas & Pacific Railroad, which ran through Pecos, to buy their crop.

The T&P listed the melons as “Pecos cantaloupes” on its breakfast menus, and dining-car stewards provided satisfied diners with chilled cantaloupes and Todd’s address.  By the 1920s, Todd was shipping cases of his cantaloupes all over the country by Railway Express.  Some customers placed standing orders, like this one:  “Please ship me the very first crate of Todd's Delicious Cantaloupes each year, to be followed by a crate each week throughout the season, for as long as I live.”

It saddens me to think that just like the sweet Black Diamond watermelons that I remember enjoying as a child, Pecos cantaloupes are virtually extinct, reduced to a fond memory.  The melons we find on sale today cost ten times as much and don’t taste half as good.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: