The Greeley Wonder was nothing more than a family legend when Kyle Monroe was growing up.
The melon was a major player in stories his grandfather would tell him about the good ol' times. A cross somewhere between a muskmelon and a cantaloupe, it was lumpy, sticky, and sweet but not too sweet and a mainstay of the Monroe family and their Weld County farm, Monroe Organic Farm.
The elevated piece of farmland southeast of Greeley has been in the family for generations. Now, Kyle Monroe can walk by the trees his great-grandfather Lester Monroe planted more than 100 years ago.
"It’s hard to see with the trees here, but if you go out a bit you can see Pikes Peak, all the way into Wyoming, past Horsetooth in Fort Collins," Monroe said, pointing out distant landmarks. "And just with the lake and the cattle grazing on the neighbor’s pasture, it really is beautiful here."
Kyle's mom, Jacquie Monroe, remembers the legend too.
"We always talked about it because it was so much of who Jerry Monroe, Sr. was as a farmer, was being known for these melons. Because as far as we know, we were the last ones to have it ever. We don’t know of another farmer anywhere," Jacquie Monroe said.
The Monroe lore goes that this particular strain of melon was developed by farmers in Greeley around the turn of the last century. The Greeley Wonder was sold commercially starting in 1915, and in 1930, Lester Monroe first got his hands on the seeds.
"There wasn’t really seed companies to buy seed from, so neighbors and farmers saved their seed and either saved it or exchanged it for other seed," Jacquie Monroe said.
Lester Monroe fell in love with the lumpy fruit. He passed on that love to his son Jerry, and his son Jerry Jr., and then to Kyle.
But over the years, the going got tough for family farmers like the Monroe's. Farms around theirs were bought up and merged. Consumers began to want their fruit smooth, regular and free of imperfections, things the Greeley Wonder was decidedly not.
Demand fell away steadily until a spring in the late 1980s when disaster in the form of heavy hail struck.
"When we planted the initial planting, it got hailed out. It was totally destroyed. We thought we lost it. We thought it was gone. We didn’t think there was any more seed," Jacquie Monroe said.
Jacquie and Jerry Jr. knew that Jerry Sr. had sent some Greeley Wonder seeds off to a group called Seed Savers in Iowa. But because Kyle and his older sister were so young, it didn’t seem like the right time to put in the work for such a challenging melon.
So for awhile, there were no Greeley Wonder melons growing in the Monroe family fields, or any fields for that matter.
"But as we went on, it became this thing of, 'Gosh, I wish we could get that seed back.' As we got older and older, it became more and more important to us to try to get that seed back," Jacquie said.
That's where Philip Kauth, the director of preservation at Seed Savers Exchange, comes in. Kauth and Jacquie Monroe crossed paths after she approached one of his employees at a conference and inquired about the Greeley Wonder seeds.
"I asked them, 'Do you have this seed?' And they went and opened up this catalog and looked through and said, “'No, it looks like we don’t have it.' And I said, 'Well, this is a very rare seed, and you only have 100 of them. It might not be in this catalog,'" she said. "And they said, 'We’re going to have to go back to the main office and look it up.'"
That employee came back to Seed Savers and found the Greeley Wonder seeds, still in storage after all those years.
"The phone call I got in two weeks was electrifying. It’s the only way I can describe it," Jacquie Monroe said. "And they just about went nuts when they found out that the original family that gave them the seed still lived in the area and wanted to grow it again."
Kauth felt equally electric to help return the Greeley Wonder to the Monroe family.
"Anytime we have a family heirloom in the collection, that’s their prized variety and they just think the world of it. The great thing about this melon is that it has a great story, but it also tastes really good. It’s just a really good tasting melon," he said.
But as it turned out, those 100 seeds in Iowa weren't the only ones left.
Around the same time his mom was reaching out to Seed Savers, Kyle Monroe decided to investigate a dusty old storage area in his grandfather's barn.
"There were some old barrels falling apart in here, and on these shelves were some small packets and the tin cans where the seeds used to come in," he said.
Like a scene out of a movie, Kyle pushed aside the cans and blew away the dust. He found a five-gallon bucket full of thousands of Greeley Wonder seeds from 1979.
"I was ecstatic. I ran and told my parents right away. And immediately my dad’s like, 'We’ll find a spot and we’ll start growing it,'" he said.
From then on, the Monroe's were able to clear space and start planting some seeds. When the melons ripened, the family turned some back into seeds. With a surplus of Greeley Wonder melons again, the Monroe's were able to pay back Seed Savers for keeping those 100 seeds safe all those years.
"They donated a big sample of that back to Seed Savers Exchange last year, so we’ve replenished our seed inventory," Kauth said.
The Greeley Wonder has been a hit for the Monroe's. The 2019 harvest has already completely sold out. Having the melons back in the fields and at farmer's markets is a way of honoring the family history for Jacquie Monroe, especially after her son found the seeds hidden away for decades.
"We love what we do. We have a passion for feeding people. And we passed that on to our son. We were just really hopeful that he would want to do it too someday," Jacquie Monroe said. "And it kinda chokes me up a little bit, but when my husband Jerry told his father Jerry Sr. that Kyle wanted to take over the farm, he just sat there and grinned. You could see how much he loved the idea of his grandson taking over the farm."
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