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Dan Dewitt: Remembering 'The Watermelon King,' a crusty, colorful Cracker

Not even Jimmy Batten claims that his father, Olan, was Hernando County's last Cracker. "Well, I'm a Cracker," Jimmy Batten said as we talked about his dad's legacy last week. So are the handful of other ranchers he named. So is anybody who grew up in Florida and works outside or hunts and fishes, or just likes to wear camo and Wranglers. At least that's what many of them call themselves.

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But if the right to claim this label is based on how closely a life resembles the lives of the settlers who herded cattle with cracking whips, then I'd make the case that nobody in recent Hernando County history was more of a Cracker than Olan Batten, a fourth-generation Floridian and lifelong farmer.

Batten died last Sunday, making it almost to 90, despite a diet of McDonald's sausage biscuits, Little Debbies and Pall Malls.

On Friday, he was buried in a family cemetery about a mile from the house where he was born in Spring Lake, on a hill with a view of pasture and scattered tractor tires and a disc harrow. His headstone will be inscribed with a twisted vine and the epitaph "The Watermelon King."

Back in the 1950s, a dozen farmers in the county competed for that title. But all of them died at least a decade ago and, long before that, quit growing melons.

Olan Batten planted his last crop, his 65th, this spring and walked his field, inspecting the softball-sized melons, just eight days before he died of pneumonia.

Who else worked that long and hard at farming in Hernando?

Who else could remember when boxcars lined up on rail sidings all over the county to haul away the melon crop? Who else knew how good it felt to fill them up at a rate of one car per acre of picked fruit and gross as much as $100,000?

Or how bad it could feel.

In 1965, a February freeze killed 160 acres of seedlings, and by the time Batten replanted and harvested his crop, he'd missed the Memorial Day deadline that Florida growers need to hit to have the market all to themselves.

"I lost my ass and it took me a long time to find it," he told me many years later.

No contemporary Floridian that I know of thought it was worth searching for weeks to find just the right sparkleberry branch — as hard and straight as the hickory shaft of an old golf club — to lift vines so he could inspect young melons.

Nobody else got as touchy if somebody asked to borrow one of these sticks or the sharp-bladed hoe he used to weed his fields.

"Anything that involved watermelons — those were personal items, like a toothbrush," Jimmy Batten said.

Likewise, Jimmy Batten said, you didn't ask his normally amiable dad if his melons were ripe.

"He'd say, 'Well, you stupid S.O.B., you think I'd pick a bunch of green watermelons?' "

Maybe you think nobody can be a Cracker unless he worked in one of the state's signature agricultural industries: citrus or cattle.

Well, Olan Batten did, said his 67-year-old son.

When Jimmy was an infant, his father and now-deceased mother, Audrey, would lay him down in a field box between rows of trees and pick oranges all day, earning $10 for filling 100 90-pound boxes.

And when Jimmy returned from Vietnam in 1969, he and his father went into business raising cattle on leased land, a partnership that lasted until Olan's death.

Going back even further, to the days when the range was still unfenced, Olan Batten worked as an actual Cracker, carrying a whip and herding cattle from northern Pasco to John Law Ayers' vast ranch south of Brooksville.

Growing up, he killed wild hogs to help feed his eight brothers and two sisters and, as many old pictures of him posing with strings of fat bass and multipointed bucks attest, hunted and fished for the rest of his life.

"That rascal toted many a deer out of the woods for me," said Murray Grubbs, 85, a former county commissioner and a partner with Batten in a business that now seems the stuff of postcards from Old Florida.

It was an attraction called the Orange Mart on U.S. 41 south of downtown Brooksville, selling boxed citrus, fresh-squeezed orange juice and, of course, Batten's famous 40-pound Jubilee watermelons. Olan and Audrey Batten also ran the restaurant at Weeki Wachee Springs in the early 1950s, when the attraction was a top-shelf tourist destination.

Put it all together and, I believe, the hunched old man with the thick glasses, crumpled cowboy hat and khakis pulled high above his waist was actually a little-noticed historical landmark.

If you want to commemorate his passing, and his era's, I recommend heading out to the Hess Express on State Road 50 and Spring Lake Highway in a couple of weeks, when this year's harvest starts to come in. Jimmy Batten will be there, selling melons from the back of his truck, just as his father did for years.

The King is gone, but his last crop is coming along fine.

Dan Dewitt: Remembering 'The Watermelon King,' a crusty, colorful Cracker 05/17/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 17, 2013 7:04pm]
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