The Arkansas Valley Fair, started in 1878, is the oldest continuous fair in the State of Colorado. The Arkansas Valley Fair is held in Rocky Ford, Colorado. The city of Rocky Ford is located in southeastern Colorado beside the historic Santa Fe Trail on U.S. Highway 50. Famous for watermelon and cantaloupe, this is one of the most productive agricultural areas in the nation.
The following is a brief history of the nationally known Arkansas Valley Fair and Watermelon Day, which was written by the late Senator G. W. Swink, the originator of the celebration.
The first Watermelon Day was in 1878. My crop for this year being very bountiful, I decided to invite all the people in the surrounding territory to partake in my crop. The country then being thinly settled the crowd was quite small, not more than 25 persons being present, and they being mostly from La Junta coming in a Santa Fe Caboose. 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.
Again in 1879 I gave the same invitation and the crowd was increased to about fifty, coming mostly from La Junta. They ate and carried home with them one large wagonload of melons. A grain door again served for a table, and I did all the carving.
In 1880 the crowd increased to one hundred and consumed two wagonloads of melons.
In 1881 there was another increase, two coach loads coming from La Junta. That year a table was built twelve feet long and the melons were increased accordingly.
The same growth of attendance was noted in 1882, the pile of melons steadily growing, so that all wants were supplied. During all these years the feast was served in the old Swink Store adjoining the Santa Fe track.
In 1883 there was another marked increase in the crowd, and the table for melons was transferred to the grove north of town, which incidentally was a part of my timber claim, which had the distinction of being the first culture claim proved upon the United States. The feast of melons was accompanied by a basket picnic, a table being built separate from the melon table. On this the ladies spread a most excellent dinner for the visitors. Adjacent to the two tables was a display of plums, grapes and apples, which were given to the crowds before the day ended.
In 1884 there was another increase in the crowd as well as the size of the melon pile. The free dinner also was enlarged in quantity and improved in quality. The ladies of Rocky Ford took great pride in preparing a fine dinner and deserve much credit for the valuable aid rendered. The display of horticultural products was made a feature again.
In 1885 there was the usual increase in the crowd and the spread of toothsome viands. To the display of fruit was this year added the farm products. Up to and including the year I cut and served all the melons, which were eaten.
In 1886 so great was the attendance that the ladies had to "put the big pot on", but they had an abundance of "grub" and as fine as could be provided anywhere. This year I was compelled to call in help to cut and serve the melons. There was the usual display of farm and orchard products, but in larger quantities than previous years.
The raising of watermelons in the Arkansas Valley was started in 1877 by the planning of about one-quarter of an acre, which produced all that could be sold in the local markets that year. The local demand increased, and from time to time the acreage was increased.
Up to the year 1886 I produced all of the melons that were raised in this part of the county, and during that year I commenced to introduce them in Eastern Markets. The first two years shipping of melons was a failure financially as the proceeds were not sufficient to pay express charges.
Shortly afterward the better hotels and restaurants began to sell and call for "Rocky Ford Melons" and they were shipped in carloads to Kansas City and Saint Louis.
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