Most days Rush Springs is a quiet, slow-moving town. But during the second weekend each August, thousands of people pack into the small southwestern Grady County community for the Watermelon Festival. 

Crack open a super sweet Rush Springs watermelon and it’s obvious why this area located off of US-81 and SH-17 is dubbed the “Watermelon Capital of the World,” although seven cities in the United States make that claim to fame. 

What most people may not know about Rush Springs is that several decades before the Watermelon Festival began in 1948, this area in the Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory, was an important trade route and a significant link to Fort Sill located about 40 miles west. 

Around 1850, before Fort Sill was established, the Wichita Indians placed their village near the springs on Rush Creek about four miles southeast of the present townsite. The Battle of the Wichita Village took place there on Oct. 1, 1858. 

After the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, Perry Hall and his wife Patsey moved to a site north of the big springs from which the town gets its name. They were Choctaw Indians and originally relocated from Mississippi on The Trail of Tears. Before moving to the Rush Springs area, Perry had been a freighter from Fort Arbuckle to Fort Sill. 

According to an article published in a 1949 edition of “Chronicles of Oklahoma,” the Halls’ home was the stopping place for many early white travelers. Many came up the old Chisholm Cattle Trail, which ran about 1.5 miles east of Rush Springs. The springs became a watering spot for cattle. 

In 1871, the old trail from Caddo to Fort Sill helped move supplies to the Army post. A small settlement of about seven or eight homes and a stage stand was located there. At the same time, another settlement was growing about 4.5 miles southeast of present-day Rush Springs, and the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway reached Caddo in the Choctaw Nation. Freight designated for Fort Sill was transported by wagons through Rush Springs where the stage stand was established. 

The founder of the ranch, Samuel Huntley, moved there in 1878. He had been a freighter on the Caddo-Fort Sill route. Before establishing his ranch, Huntley was employed by the government at Fort Sill. His ranch home was a log picket log house, consisting of five large rooms and two halls. In addition to being his home, it also became a stage stand and freight station for local settlers establishing themselves in the rich valley of Rush Creek. It was on the roads from Anadarko and Fort Sill. The South West Stage Company operated in this area. 

On July 11, 1883, a post office was established at the ranch and called Parr. Nine years later, the post office was moved to Rush Springs when the Rock Island Railroad was built. Stage travel and freight shipment from Caddo to Rush Springs stopped about 1885. The town was incorporated on Nov. 21, 1898. By 1900, the town had a little over 500 residents. By statehood in 1907, the population increased to 588. 

An interesting article in the Aug. 10, 1909, issue of “The Topeka (Kan.) State Journal” shows that Rush Springs watermelons were abundant and being marketed shortly after Oklahoma statehood. The article, titled “Had a Rocky Road,” tells the story of a Rush Springs man, J.A. Murphree, a melon grower who was arrested in Topeka, Kan., on the technical charge of peddling without a license. 

Murphree took a carload of melons to Topeka from Rush Springs and set it out on the Rock Island Railroad tracks. The carload of melons weighed 26,600 lbs. Murphree raised the melons on his farm and hauled them to the railcar they were shipped in. He was originally on his way to Omaha, but business matters forced him to stop in Topeka where he tried to sell the entire load. 

Apparently, Murphree angered the commission merchants (middlemen) when he wouldn’t accept their low offers and went directly to the local grocers and dealers and began selling his Rush Springs melons for about 65 cents per hundred pounds. He sold about half the carload to Topeka merchants before commission merchants found out and got angry because they had been cut out. 

One of them approached Murphree to buy a melon and refused the offer of a free one. After paying 20 cents for the watermelon, Murphree was arrested for peddling without a license and spent about an hour and a half in jail. A local merchant posted his bond. 

After the annual Watermelon Festival each year, Rush Springs returns to being a quiet, slow-moving town. At the four-way stop in the middle of town a sign hangs above the street and says, “Welcome back next year.” The annual festival is a popular tourist attraction. 

Sources for this article include watermelon.org; chickasawcountry.com; “Chronicles of Oklahoma,” Vol. 27 No. 4, “Some History of Grady County and Parr Post Office,” by Hobart D. Ragland, OSU Digital Collections, OkState Library, pages 345-346; okhistory.org; “The Topeka Daily State Journal,” Aug. 10, 1909, page 7.