Sweet melon capital of the World

Rocky Ford, Colorado

By Robert Longman, RCAC loan production and credit manager

Rocky Ford is a quiet agricultural community with a population of more than 4,200 located in the Arkansas Valley of southeastern Colorado; a historical community with a warm blend of “times-gone-by” atmosphere and modern conveniences.

Co-founded in 1870 by an Illinois farmer named G.W. (George Washington) Swink, its first building, a trading post, was owned and operated by Swink and partner Asa Russell. The trading post sat near the Santa Fe Trail crossing of the Arkansas River where a ford (shallow crossing) provided for safe passage. The river formed the boundary between the U.S. and the southwest Mexican territory, and the trail was a vital 19th century transportation route through central North America connecting Missouri with Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Swink developed Rocky Ford’s two main cash crops, melons and sugar beets.

For 60 years, the 900-mile trail served as a vital commercial and military corridor until the introduction of the Santa Fe railroad in 1880. After the U.S. acquisition of the southwest, the trail helped open the region to U.S. economic development and settlement, playing an important role in the expansion of the newly acquired territory.

In 1876, Swink moved the trading post three miles southwest to be near the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and laid out the present town of Rocky Ford. He realized the town would benefit from heavy trade traffic and the river would be an abundant water supply for farming. Six blocks were surveyed and platted and cottonwood trees were planted on the streets to beautify the town and entice settlers to stay. He even divided his own land into five and 10 acre parcels and offered it to anyone willing to farm the land. The town was incorporated in 1887 with Swink as its first mayor. He also was the state senator and opened the Bank of Rocky Ford.

Swink developed Rocky Ford’s two main cash crops, melons and sugar beets. He courted the town’s largest corporation, the American Beet Sugar Company, and helped build the Rocky Ford Ditch, the spine of an extensive irrigation network. He brought grafting and other horticultural practices to the area to produce many orchard fruit varieties and introduced using honey bees for pollination. The cantaloupe crate he invented is still used today.

Agricultural production quickly grew using irrigation water and by the early 1900s the town soon became a community of more than 2,000 residents. In the late 1800s, Rocky Ford claimed the title of “Melon Capital of the World,” a title still intact today with Rocky Ford watermelons and cantaloupes shipped all over the country.

Although actual melon production has declined from its peak, Rocky Ford is now the nation’s top seed supplier for a variety of crops, including melon seeds. An annual Watermelon Day celebration, initiated by Swink in 1887, is still celebrated as part of the annual Arkansas Valley Fair in Rocky Ford.

Swink’s formula – land, transportation, industry and water – represented prairie town building at its best.

Swink died in 1910 at the age of 74, but his many gifts to the town live on. Today, Rocky Ford enjoys modern day conveniences, an excellent school system, medical facilities, a library, museum, churches, parks and recreation facilities. McDonald’s has not yet arrived – although it’s only 10 miles away in La Junta. Rocky Ford, like any other community, rural or urban, has had its trials and tribulations, but the rich fabric from which it is woven has always prevailed. The values demonstrated by its founder, innovation, entrepreneurship, neighbor helping neighbor, adaptability and working for the good of the community as a whole provides the core values for sustainability.

Swink’s formula – land, transportation, industry and water – represented prairie town building at its best.

Rocky Ford certainly reflects the pride and character of “our rural communities” that make them such wonderful places to live, work and raise a family (not to mention, in the case of Rocky Ford, a place to find those sweet melons).

Rocky Ford also played an important role in the lore of affordable housing. In 1973, President Richard Nixon had rescinded all of the funding for affordable housing development. The Rocky Ford Housing Authority sued the President to reinstate the rural housing funds. The housing authority won, the funds were restored and subsequent appropriations were allowed, continuing until today. By contrast the urban counterpart to the 502 single family loan program, known as the 235 program, was never again funded. 

Reference

Foster, Dick, Sowing the seeds of success, Colorado Millennium 2000, Denver Rocky Mountain News

Colorado Historical Society

History of Otero County. From History of the State of Colorado, Volume IV, by Frank Hall for the Rocky Mountain Historical Company. Chicago: The Blakely Printing Company, 1895; pp. 242-247.

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