by David Cecelski
Late in the 19th century, the little rural community of Ridgeway, in Warren County, attracted immigrants from Germany,Switzerland, France, and the British Isles. They raised many kinds of fruits and berries, but Ridgeway gained a special fame for the sweetness of its cantaloupes. At its peak, Ridgeway’s farm cooperative was loading 14 railroad cars a day with cantaloupes.
Only one local farmer still grows the original Ridgeway cantaloupes, but the Ridgeway Cantaloupe Festival celebrates the community’s fruit farming heritage every third Saturday in July. My friend and I visited the festival today and here are some of our favorite things.
The Ridgeway Volunteer Fire Department served a Brunswick stew lunch, but there was lots of other good food at the festival, too. This is Ms. Louise Spruill at the booth for the Heritage Quilters, a local quilting guild. In addition to showcasing beautiful quilts at the booth, she was selling homemade apple dumplings, yeast rolls, sweet potato pies, fig preserves, and several kinds of cakes. Her pineapple upside down cake, which I brought home, was amazingly good.
This is a turnip salad sandwich. They were the specialty at Archie’s, a food truck that had made the 15-minute drive fromHenderson. Archie’s chefs made the sandwiches with chopped turnip greens, strips of hard fatback, and pepper vinegar, all served between 2 pieces of very pancake-ish bread. I had never heard of turnip sandwiches and I had never seen that kind of bread used to make any kind of sandwich, but my friend and I can attest that Archie’s turnip salad sandwiches, at least, are delicious.
There were other treats, too. A local agricultural heritage society—big into old tractors, antique tools, and plow horses—brought an old-fashioned ice cream-making machine to the festival. The society’s members dished out bowls of mouth-watering vanilla ice cream and orange sherbet. Other community groups sold hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecue ribs, roast peanuts, snow cones, and funnel cakes.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find Tom Brown, the legendary seeker of heirloom apples, at the festival. A retired chemicaengineer who resides in Clemmons, Mr. Brown’s passionate, full-time hobby is finding “lost varieties” of apples and cultivating them so that they can be passed on to future generations. At last count, he had tracked down more than 900 apple varieties mostly here in North Carolina.
Mr. Brown was in Warren County in search of two lost apple varieties, one that had last been reported in Kittrell, 20 miles south of Ridgeway, and the other in Norlina, just a couple miles east. If he had a booth at the festival, he told me, he thought that he might meet folks who could help him discover if these local apple varieties have survived.
This is Richard Holtzman’s farm stand on NC 158, a mile east of Ridgeway’s volunteer fire department. According to a local lady at the festival, his family is the last to grow the original Ridgeway cantaloupes. They should be available from now until Labor Day.
If you’re going to Ridgeway to find cantaloupes, you might want to time your visit so you can also attend the Saturday night shows at the Ridgeway Opry House. The opry house sponsored the music at the festival today and it was wonderful. Local groups played gospel, country, and bluegrass all day. The opry house is located on NC 158 a ½-mile west of the fire department. Shows are weekly at 7 PM, admission is only $5.00, and all are welcome. You can find out who’s playing at www.ridgewayopryhouse.com.