Around the 1910s, in a watermelon field in Rocky Ford, men hold up slices from 80 pound watermelons (Denver Library Western History Collection.
Everybody loves free stuff. Especially if that free stuff happens to be some of the sweetest, juiciest watermelon in the country.
And at the Arkansas Valley Fair, there is no shortage of free watermelon.
Every August for the past 137 years, Rocky Ford watermelons have been piled high for fair attendees to take one home–though, let’s be honest, some take two–and it’s all completely free.
The watermelon pile isn’t the only event at the Arkansas Valley Fair, but it was what started the oldest,continuous fair in the state of Colorado, all thanks to one man, George Washington Swink.
Swink was a native of Illinois but came west to the Rocky Ford river-crossing in 1870. His goal when settling in the Arkansas Valley was to raise cattle, not crops. Little did he know when he began experimenting with crops, “because the soil looked good,” that he was making history.
In 1872, Swink was visited by his friend Herbert Gardner, who had settled in the upper Huerfano Valley.
“Are you perfectly happy in Colorado?” Gardner asked him in their Rocky Ford meeting.
“Yes, I suppose so,” Swink replied, “But I do wish I had some watermelon and cantaloupe seeds. I miss the melons terribly.”
Gardner acquired watermelon seeds and sent them to Swink in time for planting that same year, thus the first watermelon crop was raised in the Arkansas Valley. In succeeding years, Swink acquired different types of seeds from all over the country in order to find what grew best.
Years later, while Gardner was living in a hotel on Broadway, New York, he was served some watermelon. When he asked the origins of the melon, he was told that it came from Rocky Ford, Colorado. He was certain that the watermelon he had just tasted was a descendent of the seeds he had sent to Swink so long ago.
Swink experimented with vegetables, grains and hays to see which crops would do best in the climate and growing season. In 1875, he had his first good growing year, though the alfalfa did better than the melons. It was a small miracle that any crops were doing well, since he was still watering them by the barrel.
It wasn’t until 1878 that the first true “Watermelon Day” took place.
Swink’s melon harvest had been especially bountiful that year, and he decided to hold a melon feast for his neighbors. The country was still “thinly settled” according to Swink, so only 25 people showed up to the first watermelon day.
“I cut the melons on the grain door of a boxcar. Only one wagonload was required to feed the crowd and give all they wanted to carry home,” Swink wrote later.
But watermelon day grew quickly. The next year, the crowd doubled in size, and doubled from that the third year. Though it continued to grow in size every year, Swink managed to grow, supply and cut all the watermelons himself until 1886, when he finally broke down and had to ask for help cutting the melons for people.
By 1891, the crowd at the watermelon pile had grown to 8,000 people. Neighbors began helping Swink provide the melons for the festival, and the location had to be moved to Swink’s timber claim at the edge of Rocky Ford, where the Arkansas Valley Fair Grounds are currently located.
People traveled from far and wide to partake in Watermelon Day. The Sante Fe Railroad ran special trains to transport people to and from the watermelon feast. Others came by means of prairie schooners, horseback, bicycles and coaches.
As the festival grew, the offerings did too. Until crowds reached numbers upwards of 1,500 the women of Rocky Ford prepared meals for everyone who came, and the local farmers donated other produce such as plums, grapes and apples.
Word spread of the event, and people couldn’t get enough of the sweet, juicy Rocky Ford melons. In 1895, it took 20,000 watermelons and 60,000 cantaloupes to satisfy the huge crowd. In 1955, 42,000 people attended watermelon day and took home 80 tons of free watermelons.
By 1886, Rocky Ford melons had been made famous through the Arkansas Valley Fair. Fine restaurants began calling for Rocky Ford watermelons, and melons were shipped by the carload to Kansas City and St. Louis. Rocky Ford melons have even tasted international fame, such as when 100 crates were shipped to England in 1897 for $4 per crate.
An event doesn’t continue to exist for 137 consecutive years without a few struggles along the way, and watermelon day has definitely overcome some difficulties over the years. In 1929, there wasn’t enough money to hold the fair at all, much less have a watermelon day.
But Belle Swink Daring, the youngest daughter of Swink, helped organize a movement to raise money that made the 47th Watermelon Day possible. Again in 1942, the fair was in doubt because of World War II. Daring’s efforts allowed the fair to happen that year too.
The origins of the fair have led to many watermelon-themed activities throughout the years. In the early days of the fair, a watermelon derby was held. Men on horseback–holding a watermelon, of course–had to race across country, over the Arkansas River, and once around the AVF racetrack. The first person across the finish line who hadn’t lost his watermelon somewhere along the way was the winner.
Though fences have long since forced the event to abandon its original course through the river, the watermelon derby is still held yearly at the race track. Participants no longer have to hold a watermelon while completing the course, but many other activities at the fair still incorporate watermelons into the festivities.
Those with a good set of lungs might want to try out the watermelon seed-spitting contest. Those with an artistic streak may want to try out one of the newer events to come to the fair– watermelon carving.
For those not feeling particularly artistic or long-winded, there’s always the watermelon pile, hosted in recent years by the Rocky Ford Rotary club, which will be held on Saturday, August 16.
And for those who can’t make it this year, there’s always next. After 137 years, it seems likely there will be just as many watermelons next year.