The 143rd Annual Arkansas Valley Fair is two weeks away, but things are going to be different this year. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced the oldest continuous fair in Colorado to adopt heavy modifications to its usual lineup of events.


Many traditional events and features have been canceled in light of the pandemic. There won’t be carnival rides or ticketed events such as the much celebrated demolition derby, the truck and tractor pull, or the Colorado Pro Rodeo shows and horse races.


Silver Day, Kids’ Day and Parade Day have likewise been postponed until next fall.


Despite drastic changes to the 143rd Annual Arkansas Valley Fair’s lineup, some traditions will continue as scheduled, if modified. Many 4-H and Future Farmers of America participants will still get to compete this week, the Silver King & Queen Contest and Quilt Raffle are still planned, and the annual Wake-Up Breakfast and Watermelon Day are scheduled.


Watermelon Day, which features the iconic melon piles celebrated yearly by people up and down the valley and beyond, stems from 1878 when Rocky Ford founder George W. Swink begun the tradition of giving watermelons to train passengers at the Rocky Ford Depot.


As more people flocked to the valley every summer for Swink’s melons the tradition was cemented, as Arkansas Valley Fair Manager Sally Cope told the La Junta Tribune-Democrat in fair season of 2019. Swink would stack melons in great piles that people and train passengers could pick from.


This year, COVID-19 and social distancing have necessitated some changes to how the watermelon pile with work. But the fair board has developed a plan, approved by the health department, to continue the tradition at the root of the regional fair hosted in the self-proclaimed Melon Capital of the World.


A drive-through route for watermelon pickup has been organized by the fair board and volunteers, the board said in a news release.


Patrons are required to stay in their vehicles in order to receive a watermelon. Vehicles accepted include cars, trucks golf carts. Bikes and wagons of any kind will not be allowed into line, said the news release.


No one but volunteers are allowed to walk along the drive-through route. One melon will be given per person and extras will not be provided for someone who isn’t present, the news release said. Volunteers will be wearing masks or face coverings.


The drive-through line is planned to begin on 11th Street and Main Street along Beech, in front of the fairgrounds. A volunteer will be stationed there to count the number of people inside each vehicle. They will put a sticky note on the vehicle’s window indicating how many melons are to be given.


At each pile three handlers will distribute melons to people in the drive-through line.


"The melon/s will be handed to one person in the car, passenger side, front or back. If possible, melons can be put in a trunk," said the news release.


A sanitizing station will also be set up near each section. Vehicles will drive through each section in groups of three.


The Arkansas Valley Fair Wake-Up Breakfast, sponsored by the fair, Rocky Ford Rotary and Rocky Ford Chamber of Commerce, will be able to continue with modifications as well. The community breakfast is scheduled for 6:45 - 8 a.m. Aug. 22 at the Gobin Building at 105 North Main Street in Rocky Ford.


Limited tickets will be pre-sold at First National Bank, Rocky Ford or the Rocky Ford Chamber of Commerce. No more than 100 people will be permitted to attend. If tickets don’t sell out, the fair board said in the news release, they will be made available at the Gobin’s Building entrance the morning of Aug. 22.


Persons attending will be asked to sign in and to add their name to the back of an issued meal ticket that will be used in giveaway drawings.


Signage, masks, hand sanitizer and social distance floor markings will be made available, said the news release.


The annual 10K, 5K and 2-mile races are still set to unfold, too. The 10K and 5K races are scheduled to start 7 a.m. with the 2-mile race scheduled to start half an hour later on Aug. 22.


Cope told the newspaper in all events and functions the fair will observe health department guidelines and requirements regarding COVID-19.


Cope said the pandemic has posed a huge challenge to the fair board in trying to conduct the fair safely and that the board’s budget is very small this year.


"Our mission is to continue the traditional values that have been set forth in this community through the many years of offering Southeastern Colorado a fun and safe place to bring their families," Cope said. "AVF looks forward to the 144th annual Fair Aug. 18-22, 2021. Thank you for your patience and understanding this year."


Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at cburney@ljtdmail.com. Help support local journalism by subscribing to the La Junta Tribune-Democrat at lajuntatribunedemocrat.com/subscribenow.