In search of sweet, ripe watermelons and Hermiston, Ore.

Aug 11, 2023, 10:14 AM | Updated: 5:35 pm

It’s peak watermelon season, and you might have seen those stickers on certain melons at your local grocery store that say, “Grown in Hermiston, Oregon.” And then, you might have wondered, ‘Where is Hermiston, exactly?’

Hermiston is in Eastern Oregon, not too far south of the Tri-Cities and the Washington border, which in that neck of the woods is the Columbia River. Hermiston is seven miles south of Umatilla, Oregon, and is home to the Umatilla County Fair, which is underway through Saturday, August 12.

Many Pacific Northwest residents may have unwittingly driven through or very close to Hermiston, as the town is located along the most direct route between Portland and Spokane.

The population is about 20,000 people, which makes Hermiston the largest community in the eastern half of the Beaver State; the Umatilla county seat of Pendleton, located farther to the east, has about 17,000 people.

The settler community in that area, which was Native land for millennia, dates to the early 20th century, and early federal reclamation and irrigation projects made it an agricultural center early on for all kinds of produce. Examining old newspaper archives reveals that the watermelons grown there have been regionally famous since as early as 1910 and have been marketed beyond Hermiston since around the same time.

They’ve been summertime fixtures in Seattle area grocery stores for at least the past few decades, and a local cooperative effort amongst growers is responsible for those stickers and other efforts to market the fruit.

The name Hermiston is not the original name for the town. Hermiston city manager Byron Smith told KIRO Newsradio that in the early 1900s, there were two separate communities on either side of the railroad tracks.

“Maxwell Siding was one of the names, and then for a long time before that, it was called Six Mile House because it was a stopping place along the road for travelers,” Smith said. “And that was back even before the railroad.”

The name “Hermiston” comes from an unfinished novel by Robert Louis Stevenson set in Scotland and called “Weir of Hermiston” and published in the 1890s after Stevenson’s death. It was chosen by early settler Colonel J.F. McNaught in 1905 because he liked the sound of it and because the post office said that name hadn’t yet been taken by any other American town. The original community of Hermiston, featured in Stevenson’s book, is still part of Edinburgh, Scotland.

A ripe Hermiston watermelon is a tasty and refreshing summertime Pacific Northwest delight. Choosing a ripe watermelon involves holding it in one hand, then tapping or even vigorously rapping on its shell with the knuckles of your other hand as if knocking on a door. Ripe specimens almost ring like a bell or a well-made wooden door; less desirable specimens give off something of a mushy or dull thump.

Hermiston city manager Byron Smith also told KIRO Newsradio about a visual test for watermelon sweetness.

“Make sure it has a good spot on it, you know, a yellow spot because that means that’s the part that was sitting on the ground,” Smith explained. “You don’t want it moved while they’re growing, and so that [spot] shows that it was grown the right way.”

Resting on the ground creates the yellow spot, Smith explains, and a melon that is left undisturbed while it was growing is likely to be sweeter.

To visit Hermiston from the Seattle area requires driving about 250 miles. If it’s too short notice to make it this weekend to the Umatilla County Fair, next weekend – on Saturday, August 19 – downtown Hermiston will host the annual MelonFest, with its famous Watermelon Bathtub Races, Watermelon Seed Spitting Contest and the ever-popular Watermelon Costume Contest.

Tapping on watermelons is not required in order to attend either event.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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In search of sweet, ripe watermelons and Hermiston, Ore.