Meet Jeff Sanders, Bellwood’s Watermelon Man

Saturday, August 14, 2021 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Corporations aren’t the only ones that pivoted during the pandemic. Jeff Sanders, 75, found himself unemployed when the General Motors auto manufacturing plant he works for shut down.

Since then, the 30-year Bellwood resident said he’s been living on savings he accumulated and on sheer entrepreneurialism. 

“You don’t go out of work when you work for yourself,” Sanders said on Aug. 14. 

Sanders, Bellwood’s watermelon man, sits in his pickup truck on the corner of Bellwood and Warren avenues on Aug. 14. | Michael Romain 

He was sitting in his Chevy pickup that was parked in the lot of Club 717, 717 Bellwood Ave., as his helper, Lloyd Lewis Boyd, stood outside by a mound of watermelons piled in the truck’s bed. 

Sanders regularly drives to his native Mississippi, where the watermelons are grown, and brings them back to sell. 

His family migrated from Yazoo County, Mississippi when he was just a teenager. He grew up on the West Side and graduated from Farragut High School. 

Sanders said he’s been selling watermelons from his pickup truck for about a decade, but his passion for the fruit is much older — so old that the autoworker doesn’t need a sales pitch, because he relies on his wisdom. 

“How do you know when a watermelon is ripe?” I ask him, before he cuts a side eye and a large, knowing grin. 

Sanders said his technique isn’t to tap the outside or look for the color. Despite what you may have been told, there’s not much to that, he insists. 

“How do you know how deep the sea is before you go in it?” 

Lloyd Lewis Boyd, Sanders’ helper, waits for customers to pick up watermelons grown in Mississippi. | Michael Romain 

Meaning, it’s almost impossible to really tell a watermelon’s ripeness without cracking it open, he said. And that’s what he does in Mississippi. He finds a batch he has his eye on, picks out several in the group and cracks them open. The sign is in the flesh, not the skin. 

Sanders said he sells each watermelon for $8 each. He’ll typically sell the fruit all the way until around September, parking his pickup not just in Bellwood, but at other locations in Chicago and the suburbs. 

In the cabin of his truck, there was a large mound of greens. How much for those? 

“Those aren’t for sale,” he said, laughing. “I’m bringing those home to my wife.” 

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