BY BRYAN PAINTER
RUSH SPRINGS — Any way you slice it, the Watermelon Festival is a vital part of the Rush Springs identity.
At least 234 fairs and festivals will be held in Oklahoma in 2009, according to the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. Those are great sources not only of income but community pride — and identity.
Take Rush Springs as an example.
The water tower touts it as the “Watermelon Capital.” The sign on the two-wheel trailer at the intersection of U.S. 81 and State Highway 17 is an over-sized slice of a reminder that the festival is held the second Saturday in August. And the festival sign with an arrow suspended over a four-way stop makes sure visitors find their way to Jeff Davis Park on that second Saturday.
Consider that the 2008 estimated population for the community was 1,344 people, up 66 from 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Consider that in 2006, the annual average daily traffic count for U.S. 81 at Rush Springs was a little more than 6,000 vehicles per day.
Then consider that 30,000 or more people may attend the festival, as has been the case in recent years, said Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs.
“I think that is partly because of the economy,” Dorman said of recent numbers. “People aren’t traveling long distances for week-long vacations. They would rather find some close getaway for a one-day trip or maybe even a two-day trip where they can go enjoy time with the family.
“Festivals, like the watermelon festival, provide that avenue. And it’s the one boom period that helps the community get through the rest of the year.”
But people have attended the watermelon festival in good as well as struggling economic times for decades. The festival began in 1940, took a few years off during World War II, and then returned.
Producer Joe Tumblson, standing inside his roadside stand, said he has about 75 acres of black diamond, royal sweets and other varieties of watermelons this year. They will grow about 30,000 pounds per acre with the majority of the melons ending up in retail stores across the state.
That returns us to the subject of identity.
The festival is Aug. 6-8, with the rodeo on the first two days, the parade on the second day and the majority of activity on the final day.
The watermelon queen, who promotes the festival at other events, will be crowned. The sounds of country and gospel music will fill the air and juicy watermelon will fill many mouths. At noon seeds will fly through the air during the seed-spitting contest and in the evening the Lions Club, which sponsors the festival, will hold the prize melon auction to raise money for charitable programs.
But long after the crowds leave, the identity generated by the festival lingers.
“It has such a huge economic impact on this community,” Tumblson said. “Rush Springs has done a great job of making their name known for raising watermelons.
“It’s a good tool for people to come to Rush Springs and for people to remember Rush Springs.”
Besides selling watermelons for a few dollars, hopefully they will sell people on the community, Dorman added.
They would like visitors to return to do business in Rush Springs throughout the year or perhaps even move to the Grady County community to work there or to commute to nearby cities.
“To many people, the Watermelon Festival is the identity of Rush Springs,” Dorman said. “It’s important to give that image of small town Oklahoma living that so many people desire.”
The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department searched its database for local fairs and festivals for 2009 and found 234 in Oklahoma. Following are a few examples of the economic impacts of various events:
The Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau reported the April 25 Norman Music Festival brought in more than $2.5 million. During the festival, volunteers collected 345 surveys, 321 of which were filled out correctly and completely, according to Stephen Koranda, executive director of the Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau. The survey found that 56 percent of the respondents were from Norman; 33.5 percent were from within 100 miles of Norman and 4.5 percent were from Oklahoma but lived more than 100 miles away. Six percent were from outside Oklahoma, one being from France.
In one weekend, three major events in downtown Oklahoma City — The Drag Boat Nationals on the Oklahoma River, the Charlie Christian International Music Festival and the Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival — had a combined economic impact estimated at $6 million, said the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau.
OK Mozart Festival at Bartlesville last year played host to more than 22,000 visitors from 33 states and several foreign countries, resulting in an annual economic impact of $3 million to $10 million to the region.
Source: Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department
What: 65th Watermelon Festival
When: Aug. 6-8
Where: Rush Springs
8 p.m.: Rodeo
All day: Vendors on Blakely Street in Rush Springs
5 p.m.: Parade
8 p.m.: Rodeo
7:30 a.m.: Watermelon Festival 5k Run
9 a.m.: Opening ceremonies
9:45 a.m.: Tiny tots
Noon: Seed spitting
4 p.m.: Free watermelon slices until gone
5 p.m.: Auction prize watermelons
5:30 p.m.: Coronation ceremony
5:45 p.m.: Rush Springs Band
Arts and Crafts Fair throughout Jeff Davis Park
Antique Car and Tractor Show