Have you ever heard of the Cantaloupe Capital? Well, it is right here in Maury County. We call it “Culleoka.”
Farmers began growing cantaloupes by the acre here in 1907. The owner/operators of the Culleoka Produce Company, brothers Erastus J. and Hardie Park, pitched the idea to local farmers. Culleoka Produce Co. furnished the seeds and the farmers provided the land and care. Once the melons were ready for harvest, Culleoka Produce Company marketed and shipped the cantaloupes wherever they would fetch the highest price.
After the success of the first crop in 1907, farmers took on more seed and sowed more acreage. By the 1920s, the Culleoka Produce Company was shipping hundreds of carloads of cantaloupes out of the Pleasant Grove Depot annually. Half of the success was having a good, quality product. The other half was the marketing genius of Erastus Park.
Every cantaloupe that came through the Culleoka Produce Company was labeled with a sticker identifying it as a “Culleoka Cantaloupe.” It is not unusual to see the Dole and Chiquita stickers on produce purchased today, but it was unheard of in the early twentieth century. It is believed the Culleoka Produce Company was among the first ever to employ a produce sticker. (These “stamps” can still be found today and are treasured by Culleokans.)
Erastus Park also made an agreement with the railroad, allowing the line to serve Culleoka Cantaloupes on the passenger cars while they were in season. He was sure that if a passenger tried one on the train, they would be sure to request one at their local market when they returned home. It must have worked, as the cantaloupes were shipped nation-wide.
Advertisements featuring Culleoka Cantaloupes have been found not only Nashville newspapers, but also those from North Carolina and Tampa, Florida. Newspaper accounts from the time report of carloads of cantaloupes being shipped to New York and California. And at least two different varieties were sold—Park’s Delight and the Culleoka Queen. The Culleoka Queen was known by its distinct “pink” or salmon-colored meat.
After some of the largest yields and profits the farmers of Culleoka had ever seen, Erastus Park died in 1928. Culleoka Produce Company continued to operate and the farmers still grew the cantaloupes, but without the driving force of Erastus Park, it was never the same. Farmers took fewer seeds each year and production fell. 1935 would be the last harvest processed and shipped through the Culleoka Produce Company.
In the years that followed, some farmers continued to grow cantaloupes, but it was on a much smaller scale. Today, it is just a sweet-tasting memory, as not even a seed remains…
Recently, a Tennessee Historical Commission marker was placed near the sites of the Culleoka Produce Company and the Pleasant Grove Depot. The marker was researched and submitted by Adam Southern. An official dedication will be held at a future date.
Great article, I own the Parks house on School st. Always love the stories of the Culleoka cantaloupe , when is the dedication?
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Hi Ernest, It will probably be in the Spring.
When I first moved to Culleoka I was lucky enough to have an elderly neighbor named John Holt. He told me about the Culleoka Queen Cantaloupe and how the sound of wagons loaded with cantaloupes would echo through the hollows as the iron wagon wheels of the heavy wagons laden with cantaloupes would crush the road gravel as they made their way to Culleoka.
Long lines of wagons would wait their turn to be unloaded onto railroad cars packed with ice at each end so the cantaloupes could be shipped as far as New York.
Mr. Holt showed me an actual cantaloupe and how the “net” had to be of a certain color before it was picked.