Rocky Ford

Staff writer

The literal-minded explorer Kit Carson crossed the Arkansas River at a shallow spot filled with shale and boulders and he dubbed it Rocky Ford Crossing Place.

The name stuck when two men traveling west with a wagon train decided to stop at the site and build a general store. The small community begun by G.W. Swink and Asa Russell in 1871 was actually about two miles from the current Rocky Ford. The town moved 13 years later, following placement of railroad tracks. Now, the town nestles near Highway 50, the only coast-to-coast highway in the United States.

From the start, melons were the staple of Rocky Ford. Today, Rocky Ford cantaloupes and watermelons have fans worldwide, thanks to the Arkansas Valley’s dramatic temperature swings from day to night (the greatest disparity in the country) that encourage the melons to sweeten.

The town’s high school mascot is a muscular melon, and the team is called the Meloneers. Lucille Ball was reportedly such a fan she had Rocky Ford melons delivered to her dressing room.

In 1878 G.W. Swink established the tradition of a Watermelon Day, sharing his own crop with a train passing through. In 1887, the same year the town was incorporated and Swink elected as its first mayor, he also established the Arkansas Valley Fair.

In 1899, hoping to diversify the town’s economy, the energetic Swink successfully pressed for construction of a sugar factory in Rocky Ford, and sugar became another leg to the economic table that lasted for 80 years.

History remains an integral part of life in Rocky Ford. Both Watermelon Day and the Arkansas Valley Fair, held the second full week in August, continue today, reminding residents and visitors of the area’s history and celebrating the sweet produce. The fair is the oldest continuous fair in the state. Most construction in the town dates to the 1960s and earlier and the town’s Grand Theatre, run by volunteers, is the longest-running movie theater in the state.

Rocky Ford took a hit to its reputation and economy in 2011 when cantaloupes marketed as Rocky Ford Cantaloupes were tainted with listeria, resulting in several deaths. Jensen Farms, the source of the melons, is 100 miles from Rocky Ford, near the Kansas border, and the listeria was traced to packing processes at the farm rather than anything inherently deadly in the melons. The farmers around the town of Rocky Ford are working with the state Department of Agriculture to reassure consumers that the melons are safe.

Rocky Ford Museum
Watermelon Day/Arkansas Valley Fair

Rocky Ford facts
Population: 3,957 (2010 Census)
Land area: 1.7 square miles.
County: Otero County (La Junta is county seat).
Altitude: 4,178 feet above sea level.
Climate: Cool summers, very cold winters and low humidity, with abundant sunshine year-round. Annual precipitation of 12 inches, including 24 inches of snow a year. July averages: 93 high and 60 low. January averages: 46 high and 14 low. More information >>