Lumber thrills

 In 2015-08

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Chandler Worley, 61, a sixth-generation farmer from tiny Fair Bluff, is on a mission from God (or at least the small farmers of Columbus County) to perfect the fruit of a flowering plant mentioned in the Bible as the food that sustained the ancient Israelites in their Egyptian captivity. We’re speaking, of course, of Citrullus lanatus, aka the common watermelon. Or, more correctly, if Worley has his way, the certified “Carolina” watermelon.

“So here’s my thinking on this,” he begins on a recent, steamy noontime over sweet potato fries at crowded Johnny’s Restaurant in downtown Fair Bluff. It’s a river town no bigger than the hips on a snake perched on the banks of the lower Lumber River, a mile or so from the South Carolina state line.

“If you see a roadside stand or a grocery store in this state selling watermelons before the middle of June, you can guarantee they weren’t grown here. July and August are prime time for Carolina watermelons. Before then, anything you get will probably come from Florida, where they load ‘em up with bulldog nitrogen and harvest ‘em in May.”

Worley shakes his head but quickly brightens. “The watermelons grown here in the Carolinas, on the other hand, are the finest and sweetest you can find anywhere. We need to get that story out and brand our melons the way Georgia does with their Vidalia onions and peaches. That could help a lot of small farmers in this state and in South Carolina as well.”

Worley hails from what might be termed local watermelon royalty. He resides on Columbus County’s oldest farm, a sprawling 500-acre tract of loamy soil that his ancestor, French Worley, bought from the British Crown soon after arriving in the area during the early 18th century. Chandler still farms the property with his brothers James, Dennis and Robert.

Back in the late 1970s, their father, A.J. Worley, and a fellow farmer named Monroe Enzor Sr. developed a friendly competition to see who could grow the biggest, sweetest watermelon in the county. With seeds he found in Ocean Isle Beach, Enzor produced a behemoth weighing 117 pounds. A year later, using seeds he obtained through an Arkansas magazine, A.J. Worley grew a whopper topping 120 pounds.

“That really got it going,” explains Worley. “They had secret watermelon patches and schemes they wouldn’t share with anybody, a real watermelon war. All designed to draw attention to our Carolina watermelons. That went on 15 years, until they got the idea to make the competition a real community event. That was the start of the North Carolina Watermelon Festival.”

At Fair Bluff’s 30th anniversary festival in late July, a couple thousand folks will have flocked to the town for a supper, street dance and parade, attracting growers, politicians and beauty queens. Prizes for the largest and sweetest watermelons will be awarded, chosen from 100 or so entries. The winner for the biggest watermelon — now averaging upward of 220 pounds — pockets  $500. A lone melon is designated “Best Tastin’ Watermelon of the Carolinas,” then promptly sold, sliced up and wolfed down. A queen was to be crowned, receiving a $1,500 scholarship and the chance to represent the town at competing watermelon festivals in Winterville and Murfreesboro. Those two eastern North Carolina towns also abut nearby farms benefiting from the    $25 million in North Carolina’s annual sales of the red-fleshed fruit.

But the success of the Carolina watermelon has special significance in tiny Fair Bluff, a town that has used its fairest fruit to ease the pain of hard times. An Owens-Corning plant specializing in fiberglass sheeting closed its doors during the Great Recession, eliminating 150 jobs and dealing a major blow to Fair Bluff’s economy and tax base. Between 2008 and 2012, the town’s population dropped by a fifth, from 1,200 to 950 residents. “Most of those were working families,” notes Al Leonard, town manager for both Fair Bluff and Tabor City. “The town was left with a lot of older residents and young people and not much in between — [no] middle class to keep things growing. Stores closed, too. That hurt every municipal budget from police to maintenance.”

Fair Bluff has long used its strategic location on a bend of the river as a means of developing new commerce. In the early days of North Carolina’s statehood, pine trees flowed down the Lumber to processing mills on the coast. The oldest trading post on the river, Fair Bluff rose about the time tobacco was introduced to Columbus County in the mid-1800s — a site chosen, the story goes, because it was a “fair bluff” upon which to settle and trade. By the early 20th century, a spur of the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Line railroad linked the town’s small tobacco farmers to their growing markets. Handsome Victorian houses clustered along the river today reflect that prosperous time.

“The town’s peak really came in the 1960s and ‘70s, when there were probably 40 or 50 small tobacco farmers in a 10-mile radius,” explains Worley, citing an exodus of local tobacco farms and warehouses in the 1980s. The advent of big-box stores in Myrtle Beach, a mere hour away, also took its toll on Fair Bluff’s merchants. Its only bank also left town. Worley himself gave up on tobacco and switched to corn, soybeans and select produce, opening a roadside stand where he estimates upward of 5,000 cars a day pass his property during the summer months, heading to or from the Grand Strand. Central to his evangelistic quest to nationally brand the “Carolina Watermelon” is a broader plan to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and tap into lucrative consumer markets in Wilmington and Myrtle Beach.

Agriculture still accounts for up to $180 million in annual sales in Columbus County, which ranks in the top 10 of almost every category of vegetable or fruit grown in the state. It also is sprouting more solar farms, with a half dozen operating and 11 more in planning or construction stages. That’s enough to provide power for more people than the 59,000 residents of the county.

“We see this as a great incentive to organic-food processing companies that wish to have no carbon footprint in a place where the soil yields monster watermelons and spectacular produce,” says Gary Lanier, director of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission. The 160-acre Southeast Regional Park between Whiteville and Chadbourn is attracting interest from several potential tenants, Lanier says. A deal with a Kentucky-based rail company to reopen lines that sit idle in Fair Bluff and neighboring towns should give an additional boost to the lower Lumber region.

 

Back in pretty Fair Bluff, things are also looking up, despite a few empty storefronts. Last year a record 6,000 visitors signed the registration book at the Lumber River Visitors Center, many of whom kayaked or paddled canoes into town and strolled its spectacular 1.2-mile elevated river walk. The Lumber is the state’s only blackwater river with federal designation as a National Wild and Scenic River. The river walk is a gem created in four phases with volunteer labor and federal, state and tobacco trust-fund grants totaling $351,000. “It’s impossible to explain what a draw that walk is to this town,” says former Mayor Randy Britt, a hardware merchant and a catalyst for the project.

He points to the growing popularity of the watermelon festival and an annual spring BBQ on the Bluff, now in its fifth year. The event draws cooks and upward of 3,000 visitors from across the region to the river walk staging area for two days of “piggin’ out and socializing” every April.

A further bright spot is Cary-based Ply Gem Corp., which three years ago occupied the idle Owens-Corning plant and now employs 30-plus workers producing vinyl fencing. Adding a simulated slate line could create as many as 100 jobs soon, Lanier says. To improve the area’s prospects, a Columbus Career and College Academy affiliated with Southeastern Community College opened its doors in 2012, with a mission of preparing local high school students for 21st-century trades, including advanced-machinery technology, broadcasting, culinary science, food processing and green construction.

After years of watching his hometown struggle, Chandler Worley is convinced Fair Bluff’s best days are ahead. He’s working on developing a fish farm to raise tilapia and catfish for sale to grocers. Worley is also part of a group that recently opened their properties, including several historic houses, to lure groups of game fishermen and hunters to the area.

“I envision several of our fine houses along the river filling up with visitors who just want to get away from it all,” he says with a grinning enthusiasm worthy of his enterprising father. “They’ll come for the natural beauty and peacefulness – and the Carolina watermelon, too.”

 

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