Three-day event continues sweet tradition
By SONYA ROBERTS-WOODS
The year was 1939. Naples residents Joe Fulcher and John Milton Heard were strolling down the street discussing how bored they were. The two happened upon Mrs. E.J. Leeves who owned a pharmacy in town at the time. To remedy their boredom, she suggested they start a festival featuring the town’s famous watermelons. The pair decided to take her up on the idea and the Naples Watermelon Festival was born.
That first year the festival featured entertainment all the way from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Back then, WFAA Radio had a group called the Early Bird Band. They performed at the Naples High School gym for the first festival. Naples native VirGinia Fleming, who has been on the front lines of the festival for years, explained the happenings from that first year.
“Our first festival queen was Martha Ann Smith and it was a very formal affair—very uptown,” explained Fleming.
The small Morris County town continued to have the festival annually until 1955. For a while after that, the festival was discontinued due to lack of interest. That same year, in 1955, Fleming returned to her hometown with intentions of getting married. At the time, she had been working, for several years, as an American Airlines stewardess in St. Louis.
“Back then, you had to resign from your job if you were going to get married,” Fleming explained.
Once back at home, Fleming, like most of the other community, really missed having the yearly festivals.
“I think for a while people just lost interest,” she said. “Many of those, who had farmed in the past and raised watermelons and other crops, had gone to work for places like Red River and Lone Star Steel and so it just died down.”
Then in the early 70s, locals Leon Cobb and Elton Brown decided to revive the event which had always been held downtown the last full weekend in July. But the heat continued to be unbearable. With little shade, crowds of festival goers would pack up and leave early.
“In 2001, Windell Cobb (Leon’s first cousin) took me to some property on Front Street,” Fleming said. “The place was deplorable filled with ‘shackey-looking’ buildings everywhere. I wondered what Windell was thinking. After I recuperated from the look of it all, he asked if I would go down to the bank with him.”
Fleming and Cobb signed the loan to purchase the five acres of land, now officially known as The Melon Patch, from Bobby Alford in April 2001.
“Windell literally worked 24/7 clearing the land,” Cobb said. “He wanted it to be ready that July and because of his perseverance it happened.”
Windell’s wife, Patsy, can also attest to her husband’s devotion.
“He lost a hay crop that year just trying to get the land cleared and ready for the festival,” Patsy Cobb said. “There were a bunch of old buildings on the property. What he didn’t burn, he buried. The place was all grown up and you couldn’t see through it to the other side, but he was bound and determined to make it all come together and he did.”
Working night and day, Cobb enlisted the help of a few good men including the Johnsons of Triple J who provided the heavy equipment to remove the buildings. In 2001, the festival officially moved from downtown to just across the railroad tracks where the group could take advantage of more space and plenty of shade trees. Since then, the festival has been at the same location Windell Cobb first spotted and has now expanded to include several more acres and buildings.
Cobb, who owned and operated Windell’s Body Shop in Naples for decades, painted the trademark watermelons which are actually butane tanks donated by Welch Gas. The two tanks now sit at the entrance of the festival grounds.
“He lived and breathed the Watermelon Festival,” Patsy Cobb said. “It was truly his passion. He worked hard to make sure the area was nice and he built pretty much everything out there. He could build anything he needed built.”
Each year, the festival, which attracts somewhere between 3,000-5,000 people, is the largest and longest-running festival in Morris County. The three-day event includes a parade, rodeo, food vendors, dance, various games and tournaments including horseshoe toss and arts and crafts booths. But the highlight of the event continues to be Saturday afternoon when some 700 ice, cold watermelons are cut up and served to the entire crowd—free of charge.
“Windell was adamant that he wanted the watermelons to remain free for everyone,” Fleming. “That’s always been a tradition of the festival since it started and he didn’t want that to change. Some people claim that the watermelons taste better in this area because of the sandy loam soil. I can’t argue with them because the watermelons are definitely good.”
In years past, some of the watermelons were purchased from Mount Pleasant-famed farmer Ralph Day and later from other local vendors. This past year, the watermelons hailed from a farmer in Cass County.
Today, the Naples Watermelon Festival Committee consists of some 10 members and serves as a 501c3 non-profit organization. Fleming, who has provided publicity for the event and served as treasurer, would like to see some favorites return to the festival.
“We used to have a country fair that featured lots of beautiful handwork, quilts and all sorts of great items, but it takes a lot to pull that off. We need a person to chair it and people to support it. I’d also like to see the queen contest return. We’ve been trying to encourage our young people to get involved again. Windell always wanted to see the whole community involved.”
Over the years, Windell Cobb’s health started to fail, but his love for the festival never faltered. After an extended illness, Cobb died March 4, 2017. He and Patsy celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, Feb. 18, while he was in the hospital. To commemorate his dedication, members of the committee and other people in the community wore festival shirts Cobb once designed to the funeral.
“We actually buried him in that Watermelon Festival shirt,” Patsy Cobb said. “It meant that much to him.”
“Windell worked tirelessly to make the festival what it is today,” Fleming said. “Once he got sick, we had to get four or five people to do what he had done. His death has been a great loss, but we know he would want us to continue on.”
“Once Windell got sick, my sons (Wade and JP) started helping out more with the festival and both of them said they didn’t know how Daddy did it. He did it all because he loved it that much. It really was his passion.”
A building on the festival grounds has now been named in Cobb’s honor. Organizers will celebrate the 80th year of the Naples Watermelon Festival later this year in July.