Watercolors and Watermelons

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In Laurel, Delaware, watermelons are not just a part of the local agricultural economy, they are an integral piece of the town’s agricultural history.

Since its popular farmer’s auction market—nicknamed “the Block” by locals—opened in the 1940s, the town has enjoyed a reputation for high-quality produce. And none of that produce is more associated with Laurel than watermelon, a fruit that together with cantaloupe and other melons sells around 2 million units out of the Block every summer and takes up 6,000 acres in Sussex County.  

As a result, the presence of “watermelon buses”—recycled and modified school buses used to harvest and transport melons to the auction market and distributors—going up and down the highways is a staple of Laurel summers, making the buses themselves local icons.

It was this iconic status that led Bill McGowan, then the state director for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, to take these buses and turn them into something that not only embodies Laurel’s history and culture, but also brings its community together.

McGowan, a Laurel local, proposed the idea originally in a branding meeting held as part of an effort organized by Delaware Sea Grant to seek ways to revitalize the town.

Since 2016, McGowan, along with the assistance of John Donato, a local artist known for creating whimsical character paintings and community murals, and local Laurel residents, have converted one to two locally donated watermelon buses each year into beautifully painted and fully functioning rolling murals.

The event, aptly titled “Watercolors,” takes place in downtown Laurel and attracts between 50 and 70 participants from the local community.

According to Ed Lewandowski, coordinator of the University of Delaware’s Sustainable Coastal Community Initiative—the program that provides funding for the event—what makes the buses particularly special is that they continue to function in their typical roles during the harvest season and are also put on display at parades and community events.

From the Fourth of July to Christmas, if there’s a local parade, the buses are there representing Laurel’s community pride and identity.

“We’re trying to develop a sense of pride in the community, an identity,” said Lewandowski.

As a now semi-retired consultant for community development, McGowan continues to act as the main planner and quasi-chair for the event, drawing on his experience with University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension program.

Though the format of the event has remained the same, each year the organizers pursue a different theme for the mural and this year’s event featured two buses that were painted.

One bus was collectively sponsored by two people, a watermelon buyer and an irrigator of watermelon fields. The result was a bus with two visual stories: on one side the story of the watermelon harvest, and on the other, that of the irrigation process.

Delaware Sea Grant sponsored the second bus and told the story of protecting the water quality of the local Broad Creek, which runs through Laurel and drains to the Chesapeake Bay. Past themes have included Laurel’s recreational opportunities such as camping, fishing and cycling, as well as the town’s wider selection of agricultural products.

What’s next for “Watercolors?”

Though the event has already proven successful, McGowan is continuing to look toward the future and what possibilities it may hold. His aspirations include turning the event into a regional community painting competition, possibly even getting the watermelon pickers themselves in on the fun.

Due to the watermelon industry’s strong presence along the east coast of the U.S., participating states could potentially be as far away as Florida. He also aspires to turn the event into more of an annual fair, akin to nearby events such as Seaford’s Riverfest and Bridgeville’s Apple Scrapple Festival.

As far as the near future goes, McGowan was excited to say that the presence of one of the new buses has been requested at the National Folk Festival in Salisbury, Maryland from Sept. 7 to 9 this year. The festival is a celebration of folk art and culture, meaning the bus could not only serve to tell the stories of the watermelon harvest and irrigation, but also be admired as a unique piece of folk art.

He also reported that he plans for next year’s event to be even bigger. Whether it ends up as a regional competition or a local fair, McGowan is intent upon making the Watercolors event into a bigger and better celebration of Laurel’s cultural identity and history.

“We’re still evolving,” he said. “We’re still learning what we’re trying to do.”

Minji Kong