The event, similar to other watermelon festivals held around the country, is a street festival with TONS watermelon. Richmond uses about 2,500 melons according to the Carytown Merchant Association website. Freemason Shriners are the melon wranglers for the day, Neal Johnston, a Shriner from Richomnd:
“Our Duty is to make the watermelon festival a great festival”
Johnston explained the specifics of the Shriners involvement.
“We first contacted the grocery stores, Ukrop’s used to donate all the watermelons, now Martins provides them. We have 5 separate stands up and down the street, We are all members of the shrine, either car club or one of the others. WE slice em, the ladies sell them, and take up the money and the people have a good time.”
He said the work was pretty challenging, they often can’t keep up with the demand for ice-cold watermelon.
“The time really goes by fast with these guys buying melons and buying melons, so we are really pushed to get them cut fast enough.”
The goal is to raise 10,000 dollars for Shriner's Children's Hospitals, and at a buck a bowl, the amount of melon they go through is impressive. Johnston loves to be a part of the event, and knows his hard work is paying off in the right places.
“I think it’s a great thing to do. The city of Richmond provides the street for us, does the clean up the next day. It’s a great community service, and as u can see by the crowd, the folks love it, and were so glad to be such a part of it.”
“I have seen the work the Shriners have done, its very touching.”
Watermelon wasn’t the only big draw to the festival, it’s also a great chance for local musicians to get heard by a large and diverse audience. Leslie Drips, lead singer and songwriter for the band Moruza, has been playing at the festival for the last 5 years. She said it is unlike any other show she plays.
“There’s a lot of energy in the crowd, and it’s so different than a quiet venue like the listening room or a coffee shop. It’s a lot of energy and it’s a lot of fun.”
She noticed a few differences this year, one of them in particular was for the better.
“The stage has moved, there are a couple of bigger stages. It’s cooler, my face didn’t melt off this year, it’s actually still here. So yea… the little things.”
There was a regular volunteering fever through out the festival. Emily Harrison, from the Museum District, joined with many other volunteers to get behind the aging Byrd Theater. She said a recent tragic event has sparked new interest in the Richmond landmark.
“It kind of came to light 2 weeks ago when there was a robbery at the Byrd Theater, that the Byrd is not in a great financial spot. So with the watermelon festival coming up, 100,000 people showing up, we decided this was a great opportunity to raise some money and give back to a local icon.”
Harrison is a recent Richmond transplant, but her short time in the city made her see the Watermelon Festival was a great chance to get the word our about the Byrd Crisis.
“I moved here a couple years ago during the summer and this was one of the first things I did. It was one of my first taste of Richmond, so its awesome to come down here and see how many people want to support local businesses and the Byrd and get a couple good bites of food and get nasty and sticky and gross and enjoy themselves. It’s really been an awesome day.”
Their goal was 25 grand by the end of the day, and wile final numbers were un available, they had sold out of “support the Byrd” t-shirts by 2:30.
Local Carytown businesses had a booth set up to spread awareness about a growing concern among the community. Paige Bishop, a member of the Carytown Merchants Association, stood in front of a large banner reading “Don’t Big Box My Carytown.”
“There is a Maryland developer that has asked for a special use permit for the building at Ellwood and Nansemond, its called the Verizon building. And basically they are looking to change the zoning for that building to make it for a big box retail. Big box being another large grocery store, a neighbor hood Walmart, a Petsmart, something along those lines. And we don’t think that that fits with the unique character or charm of Carytown because Carytown is built around its local retails who, yea know, blood sweat and tears, work every day to make a living. And so, to us, the anchor of Carytown is those small retailers, and we want that to remain the same.”
Bishop said she had received as much as 300 signatures that day, and some locals had even asked for yard signs to help aid the cause.
The local fire department had set up one of the more popular booths, a misting tent that supplied a refreshing break from the heat.
Chris Connelly, Coordinator of Special Events for the Richmond Fire Dept, gave some advice to future Watermelon Festival goers.
“Drink plenty of water, that’s the number 1 key to staying safe. Drink plenty of water eat food and stay hydrated. And find shady areas.”
If the sun didn’t scare you away, then Sandy Bergman and her Melon-headed Zombies might have. Promoting their year round Haunts of Richmond and their Halloween event Blood Lake Haunted house, Bergmen said they couldn’t miss the chance to spook the locals.
“We have, we came last year. WE had the melon heads on, and it was so much fun, we decided to come back this year with an actual room.”
The Room was a small tent filled with ghouls and scares, but the real site was the meandering ‘melon head’ zombies.
“The melon heads are; it’s a watermelon festival, right? So we took off some heads of our Zombies and we put some watermelons in their places, so they’re walking around with watermelon heads.”