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Families flood park for watermelon fest

RUSH SPRINGS  With umbrellas atop their heads and rain boots upon their feet, families and friends flooded Jeff Davis Park for the annual Rush Springs Watermelon Festival on Saturday. In its 73rd year, the festival brought together about 15,000 people who braved the rain to enjoy a slice of locally grown watermelon, buy made-in-Rush Springs, USA, goodies and ride beloved, traditional carnival rides. 

The festival's success is rooted in the local efforts of Rush Springs Lions Club, hometown vendors and numerous community volunteers, according to Renee Hoover Payton, the festival co-coordinator alongside Kim Duke. Even the festival's watermelons are a product of local farmers, who plant and nurture them in Rush Springs soil. The day's events included an early morning watermelon relay, a noon seed-spitting contest and all-day live entertainment on the main stage, among other annual festivities. 

Of the 100 vendors present, Duke said only a few of them are not local to the Rush Springs area, with the majority being nonprofit organizations such as Rush Springs high school and middle school cheer squads, student council, softball, FFA and other school-related groups. 

Joe Dorman, who spearheded the festival in previous years, said the occasion as a whole showcases the "small-town spirit in Oklahoma" and offers melons upon melons to eat.

"We have yellow meat, we have orange meat and, of course, the traditional red meat," Dorman said. "There's always a question in people's minds of what's the best. You have the sweet varieties like royal sweets, which I think are the tastiest, but the old faithful around here is the Black Diamond. ... You also have seedless, but we kind of frown on seedless in Rush Springs. We want to have a good watermelon with seeds for spitting."

Just as not all melon-lovers forgo forks and dive headfirst into a watermelon, not all agree on whether a watermelon should be seasoned. 

"I don't like salt on my watermelon, but a lot of people do. I'm traditional. Cut it open after you chill it, and then just dig into it," Dorman said. "I've heard some people will put chili powder on theirs, and then I've heard others will put cinnamon on theirs. ... But I like mine plain, right off the vine.

Jarrod Carnes, an employee at Wheels Express in Rush Springs, witnessed firsthand who prefers seasoning and who doesn't as he and his coworkers cut and sold one-fourth sized watermelon slices for a $1 at the festival. The employees had 1,800 melons to cut, Carnes said.

For many Rush Springs locals, such as Betty White, a second-grade teacher at Rush Springs Elementary School, and Lexi Large, the 2017 Rush Springs Watermelon Queen, the festival welcomed not only a time to indulge in endless servings of watermelon but also moments to reminiscence on past joys and chances to make brand new memories.

The festival remains especially nostalgic for White, who has been attending for over 50 years. She and her husband, Brad, have been married for 45 years, and their love story has roots in a watermelon patch. 

"I married a hometown boy. We met in a watermelon patch, to tell you the truth. I was driving my dad's truck, and he was loading (watermelons)," White said. "That's when he fell in love with me. ... I was 14. He was probably 18. But we didn't start dating until I was a little bit older  like 15." 

White said what really made her fall in love with him was his modification of the 1960's song "Polk Salad Annie" by Tony Joe White.

"He changed it to 'Watermelon Betty,'" White said.

For Large, the festival granted her a first-time experience  what she described as a "one-in-a-melon" experience  as she was crowned the Watermelon Queen by State Labor Commissioner Melissa Houston on Saturday night. 

Prior to her coronation, Large walked around the park wearing a watermelon-inspired outfit, which included a watermelon sundress, a watermelon sunhat, watermelon earrings, a watermelon umbrella and red Converse shoes. As she made new memories as a queen, she reflected on past joys.

"When I was little, (my favorite part) was the carnival because I loved all the rides, and I still love that," she said. 

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