Watermelon Kids

From: Meridian, ID

I have, it seems, finally gotten to the age at which a day spent doing nothing is not quite as criminal as it was when I was a kid. More accurately, when I was a teenager. In those days, “idle hands” were truly seen as the devil’s workshop. We were always strongly encouraged to find something “productive” to do. Now, I find it difficult to identify something productive that needs my attention…and even more difficult to actually get started doing it. As you might guess, Janet does not have the same difficulty. If I were to mention it to her, I know positively that she could have a rather lengthy list written up and prioritized in a very short time. And I mean a list for me. (She keeps her own list in her head.)

Still, once in a while, we come upon the urge to do nothing, simultaneously. Such was the case yesterday evening when we chose to watch an episode of Lilyhammer, a new series produced for NetFlix. And before we knew it, we had watched all eight episodes. (Each episode ran about 45 – 50 minutes…apparently calculated to be sold to a TV or Cable Network.) And it was a fun evening. We’ve done that sort of thing before, i.e., recorded an entire season of a favorite show and then set up a “marathon weekend” to watch every episode. Oh, it can get a bit tiresome, particularly in the event the series doesn’t live up to expectations. But it is definitely neat not to have to wait for seven days to get the answer to a suspenseful episode conclusion.

I wasn’t aware of it when I put Lilyhammer in my “Instant View” queue, but I see now that it was billed as a comedy. And it is. A comedy, that is. We both liked it well enough (well enough to watch six hours of it straight through, obviously), but I don’t know that anyone would call it great television. It will be interesting to see if it does well enough, commercially, to warrant a second season (or more).

(Steven Van Zandt)

Steven Van Zandt plays the lead role of Giovanni Henrikson, a New York Mafioso moved to Norway under the Witness Protection Program. First making it pretty big in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Van Zandt gained exposure as an actor with his role in The Sopranos a few years back. The humor in Lilyhammer is based almost entirely on the inevitable culture clashes between a New York gangster and the less worldly citizens of Lillehammer, Norway.

My nephew, Brad, stopped by this morning (on his way to do some snow-shoe hiking in the mountains behind Boise) to pick up a copy of an old family picture my sister had printed last week in our Boise Costco store. I don’t mean it was an old picture of our (or anyone’s) family…I mean an old picture that has been handed down within our family. We call it the “Watermelon Kids” picture. My spinster great-aunt Sarah Watterberg was the photographer that day in the summer of 1927. She and her oldest sibling, Axell Watterberg lived together on a homestead in Montrail County, North Dakota, on the east bank of the Missouri River. Their place was a mile or two north of where my grandfather, Ed Larson, had homesteaded with his wife, Mary. Mary was a younger sibling of Sarah’s.

("Watermelon Kids" c. 1927, North Dakota)

The kids in the picture, from left to right are: my father, Mederith Larson (that is NOT a typo…his name was Mederith), brother Shirley Larson (When my Grandmother Mary was older I once asked her if she had any regrets in her life. She instantly responded that if she had the chance to do it all over, she would NOT name that boy “Shirley.”), Molly, Doris, and Alice Sullivan (siblings, and cousins of the Larson tribe), Ella Larson, Nell Larson (younger sisters to the boys). Not included in the photo was the fifth Larson child, David, who, having been born in January of that same year, was still a bit small for eating watermelon with the big kids. (Click on photo for larger view.)

We have no idea today about what sort of camera Sarah may have used. We only know that whatever the format, it produced a negative size of about 3 x 5 inches. She left quite a large collection of pictures…an extensive photographic record of life on the North Dakota prairie. Her brother Axell was more of a writer – and inventor, by the way – rather than a visual artist, but his letters and other correspondence add wonderfully to that record.

Axell passed away in October 1941 before I “met” him, but I remember Sarah pretty well. She loved to have kids visit her little house (as, in fact, did her brother while he lived) and would entertain us for hours on end if the opportunity arose. One of things I remember best is the fact that she kept a small jar of mercury (a.k.a. quicksilver) in the place. And I can think of no other purpose she may have had, except that kids liked to play with it, rolling the shimmering beads on the table and such. Obviously, not something modern children would have any experience with, since we now know the stuff is rather on the poisonous side. So far, it appears that we kids that visited Sarah’s place came away unscathed by mercury poisoning.

Only a few years after the picture of the “watermelon kids” was taken, life got even more difficult on the prairies. My grandparents were far enough north to escape the worst of the infamous “Dust Bowl” conditions that hit the southern Great Plains, but of course the Great Depression did its damage in the Missouri River country just as it did everywhere else in the nation. Both my grandfathers (neighbors of about five or six miles) made it through the hard times of poor crops and even poorer prices without having to sell out. (Or abandon, as some finally did.) I’ve been told they even were able to add to their own holdings by buying several “proven up” homesteads of neighbors who decided to find an easier way to make a living.

Perhaps one reason the “watermelon kids” is a picture our families love is that it shows that life wasn’t all hard…there were, at least, some occasions when kids and ripe watermelons could come together and have a good time. And, thankfully, Aunt Sarah was there to capture the moment!

Have a great day!



7 Responses

  1. Stephanie says:

    I have always loved that watermelon picture! I keep the picture in the same place Grandpa did: right in the office next to the computer. (I just measured it and it’s 2’x3′. Not too many pictures would I like to have that big, but the watermelon kids are perfect that big!)

    • Bud Larson says:

      Hi Steph, I keep our print in the office, too. It’s not as big as yours, but due to space available in here, I suppose it couldn’t be much larger.
      It really is a great shot. Looking closely, you can see that Sarah put some effort into “staging it.” The kids appear to be sitting on a makeshift bench that was probably set up for the occasion; there are the watermelons and another melon of some type placed in the foreground; at least one watermelon was sliced into more or less equal pieces. In other words, she took some care to get what she wanted as far as the composition of the photo. You and Sarah (Stout) take the same kind of care…that’s why you both are such good photographers! Love ya, Uncle Bud

  2. Jane says:

    I don’t have a Watermelon picture hanging in my house, but of course have known it all my life. Although, I don’t know that I had paid attention to the fact that there are small melons in front of the kids. Anyway, it’s fun that Brad wanted to have it. thanks, Nancy & Bud for helping with the project.
    Also, I enjoyed the background story you included. I’m sure I’ve heard it, but had forgotten a lot of it. thanks

    • Bud Larson says:

      Hi Sis,
      I’m surprised to hear you don’t have a print of Watermelon Kids. But I guess that’s okay. Glad you liked the story. Love ya,

  3. Nancy Stout says:

    Steve has been fascinated with that picture for over 30 years. When we were working on the Larson book in 1980, we “discovered” the picture and took it to a “high-end” photo studio to have prints and posters made. When we picked it up, another customer saw it and wanted to know if they could buy the copyright to it! Of course, we said no. Steve even had tee-shirts made of it for some occasion. We never get tired of looking at it.

    • Bud Larson says:

      Hi Sis,
      I love it, too. Since writing about it, I’ve read more carefully (in the Watterberg book you put together) more carefully about Doris, Molly, and Alice. I haven’t done it, yet, but plan to count up the number of descendants that came from those seven kids. Gotta be quite a few, even though Ella never had any.
      Love ya, Bud

  4. Chip Carter says:

    Hi Bud

    That watermelon picture is amazing. I am working on a special feature observing the National Watermelon Association’s 100th Anniversary and I’d love to use it. We will give credit where it’s due of course, and even plug the family history. Let me know if that would be okay.

    Thanks — Chip Carter (813) 838-1577
    Southeastern and Texas Editor
    The Produce News

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