Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content NOREEN: A fort, a ford, a river and melons

By Barry Noreen Updated: July 28, 2013 at 9:31 am

In a secondhand way you can thank the Bent brothers for Rocky Ford honeydew melons.

William and Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain built Bent's Fort in the lower Arkansas River Basin in 1833.

They built it there because just across the river was Spanish territory. Of course this was long before any dams were built and the river was deeper and wider than it is today.

Near the fort there was a shallow, rocky stretch where the Arkansas could be forded easily, and the resulting traffic made the spot ideal for a trading post.

The fort only lasted for about 16 years and suffered the same fate as other trading posts, because the fur trade was the first real boom-and-bust cycle that hit the American West. The westward expansion marched on and the settlement that survived the abandonment of the fort was named for that shallow spot in the river - Rocky Ford.

Flash forward 180 years. So many dams and irrigation canals have been built on the Arkansas River in Colorado that the river - once a mile wide in places - now goes dry just east of Garden City, Kan. For decades, those dams and irrigation projects were the lifeblood of a booming agricultural economy.

Canneries dotted the landscape. Pickles, tomatoes and other crops flourished there.

Nowadays, the red brick buildings that housed the boom stand as vacant husks, tombstones marking the beginning of the end of a vibrant farm economy. Not long after World War II, work was completed on the All American Canal, which siphoned water from the Colorado River and poured into California's Imperial Valley.

Farmers in Colorado and elsewhere in the West couldn't compete with the Imperial Valley's virtual year-round activity. Slowly the lower Arkansas Valley's agriculture has faded.

There is some irrigated corn and you can still buy some vegetables along Highway 50. But when you hear "Rocky Ford" you think of melons, and the residents down there are so proud that their high school teams are dubbed the Meloneers.

The famed melons just started to go on sale and if you've never had a taste, here's your chance.

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Hear Barry Noreen on KRDO NewsRadio 105.5 FM and

1240 AM at 6:35 a.m. Fridays.

Contact him at 636-0363 or barry.noreen@gazette.com.

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