Historic Structures

SOWEGA - Watermelon Building, Adel Georgia

Date added: June 28, 2019 Categories: Georgia Commercial

The South West Georgia (SOWEGA) Watermelon Growers Association, a major regional marketing cooperative organized in 1921 to enable farmers to obtain the highest prices for their products. It was formed due to marketing needs for the non-essential, but ever popular, watermelons. The watermelon logo/trademark, found on the building, and all their official publications, was also placed on all the watermelons shipped. The cooperative also published a newspaper, The SOWEGA Standard, in this building.

The Wiregrass region east of the Flint River was initially associated with livestock production, and later Sea Island cotton was grown. Railway construction permitted exploitation of the area's resources in the late 19th century, and small trade centers sprang up.

In 1888, the Georgia Southern Railroad established the foundation for trade in the south Georgia region, and streets and commercial buildings of the Wiregrass towns conformed to the railroad. In 1891, a deepening agricultural depression stalled growth and it was several years before momentum was restored.

Agricultural diversification was heralded as the answer to difficulties caused by the extraction of timber and the invasion of the boll weevil in the first decades of the twentieth century. According to the Adel News of 1925, the first carload of south Georgia watermelons had been shipped from Dixie in Brooks County in 1876.

Augusta was the first watermelon center in the state; watermelons were first shipped to New York in 1867 in crockery crates. By the close of the century, the state was involved in "truck" farming for northern markets, and the Wiregrass region became renowned for its watermelons, probably because of superior soil conditions. The loss of cotton as a profitable crop after the invasion of the boll weevil surely hastened agricultural diversification. The precise circumstances surrounding the introduction of the watermelon to south Georgia as a cash crop are unknown. Horticultural experimentation was unusual for that time, as most landowners stayed with traditional crops or timber.

During the era from 1890 to 1920, a movement to organize marketing cooperatives was notable in American agriculture. Aaron Shapiro was credited with the scheme to form large specialized marketing cooperatives around 1916 for the purpose of controlling a large segment of the market for effect on prices. By 1923, the American Farm Bureau had begun intensively encouraging the formation of cooperatives.

Many factors influenced the formation and success of the SOWEGA cooperative. Possibly the organizers turned to watermelons at the temporary demise of the timber industry; by 1920, the U.S. Forest Service announced that almost all of Georgia's virgin timber was gone and predicted that in ten years, the large sawmills could close. The turpentine and gum, or naval stores, industry was perceived to be dying also.

Watermelons, by virtue of their nature as a non-essential commodity, were well-suited for specialized marketing efforts. They were not useful as animal food, their saccharine matter was not easily converted to sugar, and the juice could not be processed to make acetic or alcoholic substances. Attempts to sell a pickled rind product on a large scale were never successful. During World War II, the growing of watermelons was discouraged by the Federal government.

The light gray sandy subsoil with a clay subsoil typical of the Wiregrass country was considered ideal for watermelon cultivation. Crops had to be rotated at three year intervals for best results. The SOWEGA Association encouraged the growth of a superior product with sales of watermelon seed and fertilizer. The cultivation of the Tom Watson, Irish Gray, and Thurmond Gray varieties was recommended in the 1902 era. Unfortunately, the thick rind varieties that shipped with little damage were not the varieties that were most flavorful.

The SOWEGA Association trained inspectors to oversee the proper insulation and packing of railcars with watermelons, contracted with brokers to bring the highest prices in northern markets, and attempted to have growers produce a uniform, high quality product. The SOWEGA Association developed a lozenge-shaped logo and attached this label to each watermelon shipped in 1930. Radio advertising was tried, with a "southern melodies" theme: Suvannee River was the song used on the advertising announcement.

The SOWEGA Growers Association also published a newspaper, The SOWEGA STANDARD, for farmers with regional news items, cartoons, household hints and advice columns.

Membership in the Association required that growers be located within boundaries that initially included south Georgia but later expanded to north Florida. Growers had to plant at least 5 acres, pay membership fees, and be approved by the Membership Committee.

The SOWEGA building reflected trends in agriculture and trade during the early 20th century. Improved methods of transportation and more scientific farming methods coupled with a demand for delicacies by the growing middle classes of the urbanized North rendered the cultivation of specialized products profitable. The SOWEGA building was a manifestation of the Wiregrass agriculturalist's pride and confidence in the future of this commodity. The building, designed by Atlanta architects and built of practical but fine materials and craftsmanship, was a significant landmark in the region as it outshone all but a few other buildings in the Wiregrass towns. It was surely the most elegant building associated with agriculture in the south Georgia Region. It is also important that it was built during the first year of the U.S. Depression.

Increasing sophistication in agricultural techniques, shipping and marketing caused the organization of agricultural cooperatives across the nation. A melon grower's cooperative was formed November 29, 1920 in Quitman, Brooks County, Georgia. The organization was incorporated in 1922 under the Georgia Cooperative Marketing Act of 1921. The association was originally known as the Southwest Georgia Watermelon Growers Association, chartered in Cook County in 1922, using the SOWEGA name as a trademark, from the first two letters in the regional name. When activities expanded into north Florida, the association name became SOWEGA.

The organization was incorporated in Adel, probably due to the influence of J. S. Jones and June Jackson Parrish, prominent leaders in Cook County. It was said to be the first and only cooperative market association dealing exclusively in watermelons.

In 1929, the Agricultural Marketing Act was approved by Congress to provide farm relief. The Federal Farm Board was created with a revolving fund of $500 million to be lent to farm marketing cooperatives and builders of warehouses. According to Cohn's "The Life and Times of King Cotton" (1956), this was a significant departure from the prior independence of farmers.

It is unknown whether the Agricultural Marketing Act had any direct influence on the decision of the SOWEGA board of directors to construct a grand office building in Adel in 1929. As only 1.4% of the state's farmers were producing fruit or truck crops, it appears diversification was only beginning in 1930.

Mr. June Jackson Parrish was one of the area's most enthusiastic promoters; he organized the Chamber of Commerce and several business initiatives. He was credited with starting the watermelon grower's association.

The land for the new building was sold to the association on February 16, 1929. The building, designed by Daniell and Beutell of Atlanta to be the SOWEGA headquarters, was dedicated March 12, 1931.

The firm of Daniell and Beutell consisted of Russell L. Beutell (1891-1943) and Sidney S. Daniell (1889-1956) both Georgia natives. Both received architecture degrees from Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, and with prominent Atlanta architects before forming their own firm in 1919. Although they never gained the recognition other architects of their era did, their known works include a number of fine private homes and major public buildings throughout the state.

A local historian, Miss Minnie Shaw, wrote in the early 1930s about the SOWEGA building: "On the ground floor are the Western Union offices, Adel Post office and C.J. Adkins 1 Drug store. The second floor is used for offices... The third story is used by the Sowega force...[and] a lovely roof garden with adjacent cooking department on top of the building. Here some of the most brilliant social events of our time have been held. [It has] the first electric elevator in our little city." The building served as the corporate headquarters for the association.

When the truck appeared in the early 20th century, sufficient highway systems did not exist to profitably ship produce. But after the return to a civilian economy following World War II (1945), it was no longer practical to ship any but the heaviest freight by rail. This change in shipping patterns caused the demise of the SOWEGA Association. According to a local historian, competition from direct truck shipments from points in central and north Florida lessened demand for SOWEGA watermelons. The association survived here until 1960 when they sold the building and moved elsewhere. Today, while the SOWEGA Association no longer exists, there is a state watermelon growers association by another name.

The SOWEGA building was purchased by the Del-Cook Lumber Company in 1960. The building retained its stature as a landmark, as growth in the town of Adel occurred very slowly. Metcalf Lumber Company purchased Del-Cook from Jim Paulk in 1986, and donated the building to the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, Inc. in 1987 with the stipulation that the building always bear the name SOWEGA/Jim Paulk. In 1988, the ground floor was renovated for the Chamber's headquarters.