WATERMELONS

Watermelon a buck a sliceIn the endless merry-go-round of Arkansas harvest festivals, there's one big one and that's the Hope Watermelon Festival. It's a four-day wingding that winds up the second weekend in August. It's a pretty good party, if you're into harvest festivals, and people show up by the tens of thousands to celebrate the watermelon. For starters there's the stuff you might expect -- watermelon eating contest, seed spitting, carnival food (gator-on-a-stick), melon judging, arts and crafts. But then again....

While a lot of local events nationwide suffer from dinkiness, the Watermelon Festival is expansive, including and attracting all sorts of ancillary events from foot races to archery events, a softball tournament, a bass tournament, fiddling contest and just keep naming stuff, buddy. I guess that organizers of area tournaments and contests just tended to plan them for Watermelon Weekend and over the years it spontaneously evolved into a kind of Arkie Olympics, second in scope only to the State Fair.

And lest I forget to mention, all the damn watermelon you can hold. A relentless orgy of watermelon. How many melons? Go out to the county landfill, count the plastic forks and divide by four. Before we move on, take another look at that picture in the upper right. I swear I haven't digitally erased the seeds on that slice.

Harvest festivals showcase the local bands in front of the most appreciative audiences.

'Capitol Offense' -- Governor Huckabee on bassOn the stage in the background. See that guy with in the yellow t-shirt and the white gimme hat taking a solo on the bass? That's Governor Mike Huckabee. Nope. Not kidding. His band, Capitol Offense, has played the Hope Watermelon Festival every year since he became Governor. He's not the only musically inclined (and vaguely melon-shaped) politician to come from Hope. Semi-famous saxaphonist Bill Clinton also hails from here.

I spoke with percussionist Chris Pyle on the phone, and he told me that with two exceptions the band is made up of the governor and members of his staff. Here's the lineup:

Chris told me that Capitol Offense plays roughly a half-dozen dates a year, most recently at the Southern Governor's Association conference in Memphis. They rehearse monthly, about twice as often as they play. With that in mind, they weren't as bad musically as a cynic might hope. They limited their play list to covers of standards like "Johnny be Goode" and "Sweet Home Alabama" and did them fairly well. They're easily good enough to play county fairs and the like, but they need more robust amplification in order to sound good in outdoor venues.

It's tempting to portray this in some politically sad and smarmy way, but really it's just Governor Mike's band playing at his home town's harvest festival. Mike Stevens of the Hope Chamber of Commerce told me what he paid the band. Once divided seven ways it's barely gas money and a dinner at Western Sizzlin. Personally I'm glad to live in a state where the governor doesn't feel like he has to uphold some plastic notion of decorum or be surrounded by a scrimmage line of bodyguards. If you have to put up with the phony stuff, what's the point of being governor?

Big melons of 1999And speaking of Western Sizzlin', that's where this year's whoppers are displayed. The melon in the red velvet lined washtub weighs 202 pounds. Just below that, and from the same grower, is a melon just a few pounds lighter. The giant melons are displayed here because this is the restaurant closest to the interstate and therefore they are more likely to be seen by people just passing through.

If by now you aren't convinced that Hope takes its watermelons seriously, this is a storefront right downtown. It's called The Melon Shed Gifts"The Melon Shed Gifts" and you can't buy anything here that doesn't look like a watermelon. Watermelon ashtrays, watermelon tote-bags, watermelon coffee mugs, watermelon earrings, watermelon coasters, watermelon everything. Pictured are proprietors Barbara and David Stanphill, ready to fill all your watermelon paraphernalia needs and those of watermelon festivals across the nation. And of Gallagher, if he happens to call.

Replica of Former World Record MelonAnd if by NOW you aren't convinced that Hope takes its watermelons seriously, this is the Hope Visitors Center downtown and that reticulated green body snatcher pod is in reality a replica of a 200-plus-pound past-champion watermelon. Visitors in the off-season were asking things like, "Just how big IS a 200-pound watermelon, anyway?" Twenty pounds bigger than the man posing next to it. That's how big. Around downtown you'll also see permanently displayed watermelon banners and murals.

Most madnesses can be traced to some precipitating event, and this area's melon fetish is no exception. The whole thing started back in the early 1920's when Jno S. Gibson of the Jno S. Gibson Drug Company started offering annual prizes for the largest watermelon. Soon the Laseter Brothers (Hugh and Edgar) were routinely producing melons of a hundred pounds or more. In 1925 they created a sensation when Hugh showed up with a 136-pounder. After being displayed in Hope for a few days, it was crated with the words "The Wonder Melon from the Wonder State" painted on the crate and was shipped off to President Coolidge. (Note: Arkansas was first known as The Bear State, then the Wonder State, then The Land of Opportunity, and now The Natural State.)

Hope Chamber of Commerce President Washington Young Foster suggested that the next year they should hold a watermelon festival and that was that. He rode in the lead car in the 1926 Watermelon Festival parade. Edgar Laseter topped his brother's effort with a 141 3/4 - pounder. This giant, deemed too valuable to send to the President, who probably still had leftovers from last year anyway, was saved for seed. A fractionally smaller melon grown by A. B. Turner was shipped to the Kiwanis Club in Little Rock. The combined membership failed to finish the melon at one sitting.

The first Watermelon Princess was Laurine Lewis of Hope. According to 1926 news clippings from the Hope Star, a posse of Watermelon Maids elected the Princess from among themselves. Members of the community elected the Melon Maids, one from each township in the county. Votes for princess were garnered at the rate of one per fifty cents spent at designated local area merchants' establishments. The selection process has changed since then.

In 1927 a 144 pound melon grown by Arthur Powell won the prize and was sent to the Lumberman's Club in St. Louis.

In 1928 a 144 3/4 pound melon grown by H. S. Dudley won the prize and was sent to the Rexall Corporation of Boston, MA.

In 1929 Edgar Laseter won with a 152 1/2 pounder, which he sold for fifty dollars to the Charles Lowther Commission Company, which acquired the melon on behalf of the Rush Brothers of Greenville, SC.

One question I was never able to answer was who decided where the championship melons were sent and why they were sent there. The 1929 melon was purchased, but were the others gifts? Did visitors from out of state enter a lottery to win the melons? Did the Chamber of Commerce send them to business associates from other cities? Were they used as publicity for the local agricultural products?

A few weeks after the 1929 festival the Great Depression hit. The Hope Watermelon Festival was discontinued for the next few years even though area truck farmers continued competing among themselves to grow ever larger melons. In 1935 O. D. Middlebrooks of Patmos grew a 195 pound watermelon and in doing so set a world record which was to stand for forty-four years. It was shipped to the Hollywood home of Arkansas-born entertainer Dick Powell.

Affidavit Certifying first 200-lb melonAt left is a copy of an affidavit attesting that the nine undersigned men on August 26, 1979 witnessed the weighing on scales certified by the Arkansas Department of Weights and Measures of a two hundred pound watermelon on the farm of Ivan and Lloyd Bright. The first watermelon ever to break two hundred pounds. Trivia buffs and conspiracy theorists will be interested to note that the third signature from the bottom is that of Vince Foster. While the melon was on display in Little Rock, Jane Grace, an official judge for the Guinness Book of World Records, verified the weight. Seeds from that melon were sold for eight dollars apiece.

Prize money for champion melons varies depending on the emotional stakes. In recent years the purse has generally fluctuated between five hundred and fifteen hundred dollars. Now that the record is held by a grower from Tennessee who bought seeds from Ivan Bright, local businessmen are expected to kick in monetary incentives to try to bring the title back to Arkansas. Next year there could be a lot of growers making an attempt at the prize.

Thinking of giving it a try? At the gift shop at the Best Western in Hope you can get a booklet on the raising of giant watermelons. Written by Ivan Bright. Five bucks. Seeds from the Brights' championship line nowadays sell at the local hardware store for three dollars a dozen. Abbreviated instructions I copied from a 1995 Watermelon Festival Program go something like this:

GROWING THE BIG ONES

Begin with the seed. Plant a giant variety like Cob Jim, Triumph or Tom Watson.

Break the land deep in late winter or early spring. Work in commercial fertilizer (5-10-5 or 8-8-8) at the rate of 300 to 400 pounds per acre. After danger of frost is past, plant hills 16 to 18 feet apart in rows 16 to 18 feet apart. When plants are up, thin to one plant per hill. When plants start to run, side dress (apply no closer than 3 feet from row) with ammonium nitrate at 200 pounds per acre. Cultivate lightly and often. Remove all melons from the vine except one if you want a 200 pounder. Leave two melons on the vine if you'd rather have a pair of 100 pounders. When melons reach 50 pounds, turn them once a week to keep them from flattening out like beanbags. Cover them with straw or grass to prevent sunburn. It sounds counterintuitive given the name, but watermelons need dry weather in order to grow large.

Sounds pretty straightforward when you jam it all into one paragraph, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. These giant watermelons can take over your life. The amount of time and effort required to grow giant melons, not to mention the investment in garden space (300 or more square feet per melon), discourages lots of growers from giving it a try.

Here's an example from 1982. Harold Wilson of Waldo grew a melon of 200 3/4 pounds, beating the Bright melon of 1979 by 12 ounces. Once the melon started getting close to the 200 pound mark it was attended 24 hours a day. He camped in the field, and when he was at work his wife guarded the melon, which came to be called "My Baby." A tent was pitched to shade the melon from the withering August sun. Wilson chained a dog to a stake next to the melon, just in case, and drip fed the vine fifty gallons of water a day.

And once the melon is grown you're just halfway there. This isn't a thirty pound market melon that you just pick up with your hands and put on the bed of a truck. Wilson laid the melon in an oblong galvanized steel washtub on a bed of cottonseed hulls and trucked the whole assembly to the Columbia Meat Packing Company in Magnolia, where it was weighed and certified by a representative of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture.

So that year Harold Wilson of Waldo broke the record, but he didn't hold it. Within a matter of days Vernon Conrad of Bixby, Oklahoma harvested a melon weighing 219 pounds. Couldn't you just swaller yer chaw?

If you want a giant melon for some reason, as a novelty or a centerpiece for a party or something, you can buy them from the handful of growers who habitually try for the record. They grow acres of big ones, hoping that one will excel enough to take the prize. There's an ad in the 1995 Festival official program offering to sell giant melons for a dollar a pound, shipping included. Available in August and September only. If you're interested, call the Hope Chamber of Commerce and they'll put you in touch with a grower.

People are divided on the taste of the giant melons. Folks in other melon-producing regions of the state say they're a garden novelty of marginal eating value. Fans of Hope melons say that this is because the giant melons are often kept on display for so long that they are dried out by the time they are eaten, and timely consumed they are the equal of any other melon of the same variety from the same region.

WATERMELONS FOR EATING

The vast majority of watermelons are made for popular consumption. The Hope Chamber of Commerce has a list of growers authorized to label their melons with "Genuine Hope Watermelon" stickers, and the C. of C. is the sole source of the stickers. Growers from Texas are known to drive to Hope to sell their melons on the strength of the Hope melon cachet.

Cave City -- Home of the World's Sweetest WatermelonsWhenever I travel the southwest corner of the state in the summer I pick up a couple of Hope melons for my Dad, who eats more watermelon than any other two-legger I've ever known. He told me that the best watermelons in the state come from Cave City, and the people of Cave City agree with him. That sign reads "Welcome to Cave City -- Home of the World's Sweetest Watermelons."

I stopped at a stand in Cave City and asked what constituted an official Cave City Watermelon. The grower told me in his terse country way, "Twelve miles this-a-way, twenty miles that-a-way." At the mention of Hope melons I could see that he was trying not to smile. His opinion was that there was nothing wrong with Hope melons, but there was nothing special about them, either. Hope's reputation for melons, he asserted, was based on the growing of a few novelty giants, not large numbers of superior quality table melons. To the people of Cave City, a "Genuine Hope Watermelon" might as well be a "Genuine Magnolia Watermelon" or a "Genuine Pine Bluff Watermelon."

Genuine Cave City MelonsI learn from the Pulaski County office of the U. of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service that Cave City melon fields are distinguished geologically by a layer of limestone running close to the topsoil. While all of the Ozarks north of the Boston Mountains have limestone soils, only here in the foothills is the soil sufficiently deep and ideally sandy and the climate seasonally subtropical to semiarid for the growing of spectacularly tasty watermelons. What can I say? It's a serendipitous convergeance of natural and preternatural forces impossible to duplicate and as of this writing beyond the capacity of human understanding. Don't believe me? Ask the melon seller pictured at right. The true melon afficianados will go for the Cave City melons every time and leave the Hope melons to the tourists. Cave City melons have "Genuine" stickers, too. Note the stickers on the melons in the photo.

Usually the Cave City Watermelon Festival is held the week after the Hope Watermelon Festival, but this year they were held concurrently. I don't know if this was a scheduling snafu or an attempt on the part of Cave City to draw off some of the Hope crowds. Whatever the reason, it's not going to make much difference in the short run. People who know the difference will go to Cave City for their melons and to Hope for the party.

As of this writing, the world record is held by B. Carson of Arrington, TN. His 262-pound melon was grown in 1990 and is descended from melons grown on the Bright farm.

Stray fact: Many place names in Arkansas come from the families of 19th century railroad executives. Hope was named for Hope Loughborough, daughter of the director of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad in 1873.

Stray link: Bald Knob roadside watermelon sculpture.

RTJ--10/1/99

UPDATE

This year's weather has been particularly good for watermelons, and the Bright watermelon dynasty has produced not one, but two record breakers. I drove down to the Western Sizzlin' at Hope in hopes of seeing them, but the 263 pounder had begun to leak and had been discarded. On the wall behind these are pictures taken at the end of September of the record melon. The 268 pounder spoiled in the field and was never put on display.

Anyhow, what they did have on display were these. The three melons on the far table weigh 250 pounds each. The little one in the foreground weighs in at a meager 216 pounds. I guess that's the children's table. I didn't get the name of the guy in the picture. I just asked him to stand in the picture to provide some scale. If you want a giant watermelon of your own, you can buy one right here at the hotel gift shop. If you want a price quote, you can get that from www.giantwatermelons.com.

I visited with Mark Keith at the Chamber of Commerce to ask him what were the chances of somebody else beating the record this year. He told me that there aren't any more contenders waiting to be harvested around here, but there are vague rumors of large melons coming along in the Carolinas. Our season is a bit earlier than theirs, so we should know in a couple of weeks if the new Hope records are going to stand. They're not going to repaint the welcome signs until they know for sure.

Since there had been some question as to the validity of a 290 pound melon submitted by an Eastern grower to the Guinness Book some years back, these melons were weighed on two scales, one mechanical and one digital. The whole harvest and weigh-in was videotaped and photographed and witnessed by a big gob of people and that documentation is presented on the Hope Melon Festival website. So there.

P.S. Melon Shed Gifts mentioned in the story above has closed its doors, but I expect the merchandise can be purchased at festival time.

Sources:

Keith, Mark: Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce, pers. comm. 7 Sep 2005.

Tubbs, Brandon; "Hope Watermelon Weighs in at record 268.8 pounds;" Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 4 Sep 2005, p. 2B, col 4.


Arkansas Travelogue home page