EVERY TIME I GO to a new town, I always have hope: hope that my guide and I will get along swimmingly. Hope that I’ll see some interesting sights and meet a few fine folks. Hope that I’ll learn something new along the way. But this time, instead of hope, I have … Hope. And, if I’m being honest, as I drive to my destination, I’m worried that Hope (population circling 10,500) isn’t necessarily the kind of town one has high hopes for.
But then, as I pull up to the town, I see a billboard-sized painting of a watermelon wedge and the words proclaiming, “HOPE: A SLICE OF THE GOOD LIFE,” and I remember what my fondest hope almost always is: to score some good eats. I also remember I’m starving.
I walk into the Hope-Hempstead Chamber of Commerce and encounter the largest watermelon I’ve ever seen. It must be the size of a baby’s bassinet, at least. Too big to fit in a little red wagon, that’s for sure. While I stand, staring, mouth watering, a man walks out of a door to my right and calmly says, “You must be Heather.”
In a neon green Hope Watermelon Festival shirt, khaki pants and matching neon green socks peeking out of penny loafers (sans pennies, as far as I can tell), Mark Keith smiles when, instead of returning his greeting, I state the obvious: “That’s the largest watermelon I’ve ever seen.”
“That’s the largest replica you’ve ever seen,” he replies, and encourages me to “go thump it.”
It was the Watermelon Festival that led me to Mark in the first place because, as the Hope-Hempstead Chamber of Commerce’s website says right at the top, Hope is “Home of President Bill Clinton, Governor Mike Huckabee and the World’s Largest Watermelons.” As director of the chamber of commerce, Mark is also head of the Watermelon Festival, an annual event where you can run a 5K, spit watermelon seeds for prizes or become the next Watermelon Idol and open (this year) for the Oak Ridge Boys. And if you’re feeling really lucky, you can try to best local farmer Lloyd Bright’s former world-record-breaking watermelon (268.8 pounds back in 2005), which is what appears to be currently on display in the chamber of commerce.
And thusly do I start my day in Hope thumping a fake watermelon.
It seems everyone in Hope is as enamored with watermelons as I am (or the idea of them, at least). Mayor Dennis Ramsey, president of the Farmers Bank & Trust, wearing a salmon-colored polo and a wide smile on his face, explains why.
“What originally put Hope on the map was watermelons, at least since the early ’20s.”
“Lloyd says this may be the 100th year,” Mark interjects, also proud of the festival that makes his home unique.
“And of course, the personalities that come from Hope,” the mayor continues: “President Clinton, Gov. Huckabee … we’ve had people succeed nationally and internationally. Joe Purvis, an attorney that grew up with the president, said, ‘Hope is the cradle of civilization.’ Mack McLarty, President Clinton’s chief of staff, still calls this home. It’s a great place to grow up. Hope was the home of a sitting president and a sitting governor simultaneously—a Democrat and a Republican. That shows the diversity of our town.”
The political diversity of the town might, however, be one-upped by the nostalgia of its residents, especially when it comes to memories of the culinary variety. “Hope is a very nostalgic town,” Mark adds. “They hold their history. You can start a debate over the flavors of ice cream at Cole’s Double Dip Stand. People remember those things and love to talk about them. Cole had a grape ice cream! But the signature watermelon thing made in Hope was the watermelon fizz at Cherry’s.”
“Cherry’s was a place downtown,” the Mayor explains. “The food was good, but Cherry’s personality really made it.”
Standing there in the bank, Mark and the mayor fall back on the kind of conversation that’s couched in nostalgia and old stories—the sort that seems to lack beginning or end.
“He used to water-ski in the swimming pool,” Mark reveals.
“I don’t know if that needs to be in there!” the mayor protests, yet goes on to elaborate: “It was when I was 15 or 16 years old and was a lifeguard. We’d tie a rope to a car and ski from one end to the other. Can’t do that anymore—the pool is divided now.”
Mark then reminisces about the time he was playing an old song called “Tough” on his saxophone and the mayor walked up to listen. “He watched me and smiled the whole time and clapped when it was over and said, ‘That was real good. Now can you play ‘Tough?’” Mark and the mayor chuckle. Mark adds, “I don’t know who that reflects on—me or him.”
I think that kind of good-natured ribbing reflects on them both, and I hope I get to see more of these enduring friendships and comfortable senses of humor on display in this cheerful little town.
From the Bank & Trust, Mark makes a beeline for Terry Powell’s Grocery. It’s not much to look at, if you want to know the truth. From the outside, it looks like any other convenience store—a cream-colored metal building with a blue roof and gutters, gas pumps out front and coke machines next to the glass double-entry doors. Inside, you’ve got your choice of snacks to the left and camo or bedazzled ball caps to the right. But go straight ahead, toward the back of the store, and you’ll see a glassed-in deli case, where, among more common fare like fried chicken, you can get yourself some cracklins.
Now, I watch enough Food Network to know that cracklins are often little crispy bits of whatever meat (usually pork) is left over (or purposely culled, because the Food Network is so fancy and all), but I’ve never actually ingested any myself. And, I have to admit, I’m a bit nervous about it. After all, I like my steaks rare and my bacon on the chewy side.
Mark introduces me to Mr. Terry Powell of the eponymous grocery store, who’s decked in a striped polo shirt and jean shorts and khaki ball cap. Terry instructs one of his workers to go grab me a handful of cracklins. I think he can sense my trepidation, because he gives me the most obvious reassurance: “You’ve eaten bacon.”
“I love bacon,” I reply.
“We make them in bacon fat.”
“Back in the old days, they cut off the fat and made cracklins out of it. But ours is made out of prime meat. It’s bacon belly battered and fried.”
My mouth starts to water. Terry hands me a napkin with half a dozen inch- to 2-inch-long strips of golden brown crunchiness. “Are these any good?” I ask a lady standing in the checkout line.
“Oh yes,” she says, shaking a paper bag in her hand. “That’s what’s in here—$4 of cracklins.”
“I’ve had people try to copy me …,” Terry starts, ending with a shake of his head.
I pick up a cracklin. Flecks of pepper dot the crispy batter. I put it in my mouth. I chew. It’s like chicken-fried bacon, and it’s glorious.
Rose Hill Cemetery doesn’t seem all that remarkable to me. It’s pretty flat, with the requisite green grass and some obelisks here and there. But it’s where President Clinton’s mother and biological father are buried, and I wonder if ol’ Bill himself gets the chance to come out here every once in a while.
There’s also the low-slung tomb of one Paul W. Klipsch, whom I’ve never heard of before. “He was sort of a mad inventor,” Mark tells me. “You’d say, ‘Hello, Mr. Klipsch,’ and he’d say, ‘Good morning! It’s morning somewhere, isn’t it?’” Beautiful old magnolia trees line the fence along the main road, and we speed on to Hope’s industrial park.
In many towns, the industrial park isn’t necessarily a point of pride, or at least not one you’d show to an out-of-town guest. But Hope’s industrial park is located in an area called Oak Haven, which was the Southwest Proving Ground for the U.S. government’s National Defense Program during World War II. It was on this 50,000-acre plot where an airfield was built so bombers could land, and artillery shells and air bombs could be tested. The proving ground is integral to Hope’s identity, as it brought many jobs to the area in the 1940s and pulled Hope out of the Depression.
It also brought Mr. Klipsch.
“Mr. Klipsch was an engineer with the Army,” Mark says. “That’s how he got to Hope. After the war, he just stayed.” In 1945, he patented a loudspeaker design, which is now the only speaker in the world that has been in continuous production for more than 70 years. According to the company’s website, Klipsch speakers are still considered to be among the world’s finest, used on the Emmys red carpet and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
But Klipsch is just one of many industries now located in Hope. There’s Tyson Foods, New Millennium, Hexion, Georgia Pacific, Oldcastle, Funder America, AmeriTies South—so many factories in such a relatively small town. Among all this commerce, we pass a field dotted with huge white cylinders. “I’ve never seen hay bales wrapped in plastic,” I say.
“Oh no!” Mark retorts. “That’s the marshmallow farm.” And for just a split second, I wouldn’t mind taking a bite.
As we drive around, I’m convinced I’ve seen everything in the county. Mark’s even driven me by Historic Washington State Park, the Confederate Capitol from 1863-1865, he tells me. Within 101 acres, the park exhibits 54 buildings, including a blacksmith shop, an old school and both the 1836 and the 1874 courthouse. Mark knows all the dates, and I am astounded. He even remembers that he first arrived in Hope on March 1, 1988.
“Why do you remember the exact date?” I ask.
“I guess ’cause I was so happy to get here,” he says, shrugging. “I came here for a radio job and didn’t think I’d stay long. Now you’d have to forcibly evict me.”
First lunch: Tailgaters. It’s a cool little corner restaurant with exposed brick wall and booths made from—you guessed it—the old tailgates of trucks. Mark warns me not to eat too much, since we have additional vittles ahead, so I just order fried pickles and potato salad (those are just two vegetable sides, aren’t they?).
Wendell Hoover, editor of HopePrescott.com (the online newspaper in these parts), and Novalene Slatton, staff member at the chamber of commerce, join Mark and me for a bit. At 91 years old, Novalene is just as charming as can be. “You’re Heather? I’m glad to know you. I’ve heard lots about you.”
I’m not sure what exactly she’s heard about me, but her smile indicates it must have been good. She’s out today selling ads for the Watermelon Festival program, and she hands me last year’s program as an example. “It’s August 11, 12 and 13,” she tells me. “And we want you to come. I want you to come.”
The skin-on potato salad is some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and between bites, I ask her what makes Hope Hope for her. “The Hope Chamber of Commerce,” she recites, posture proper. Mark nearly spits out his water at her joke. Novalene relaxes. “The people are friendly. Down-to-earth. We don’t try to be something we’re not.”
Wendell agrees. “Everybody works together. The three of us are Lions. [Our club] is one of the biggest in the state.” He points to Novalene. “She joined at 90.”
With these three Hope experts at the table, the conversation bounces all over the place:
“The airport was the third longest runway in the U.S. when it was constructed.” (Wendell.)
“Mark thinks there’s at least 30,000 people who come to the Watermelon Festival.” (Novalene.)
“The community passed a sales tax to build the multipurpose building—Hempstead Hall—at the college.” (Mark.)
“The Watermelon Idol winner gets to sing after Miss America!” (Novalene.)
“We’ve got to go! I’m gonna take you to a genuine gourmet restaurant in a converted barn.” (Mark.)
Gourmet restaurant? Converted barn? Yes, please, I think.
Mark is taking me out toward an area called Shover Springs—the “dullest drive you’ll ever see except for the speed trap in Bradley,” he says.
It’s not a great drive, admittedly, but as he tells me how close we are to Louisiana (45 minutes), how close we are to Texas (30 minutes) and how close we are to Oklahoma (55 minutes), I realize I have now been to all four corners of our Natural State.
I break from my reverie in time to see a swampy ditch. “You got alligators down here?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” Mark says, and I’m glad I’m not out in the muck today.
When we arrive at Dannie’s Cafe, I note that it’s not much on the outside—just a one-story barn, painted red, in good shape. Before we make it all the way inside, a lady in a chef’s coat comes out from the house in front of the barn and says, “Look at our baby.” I turn around to see a fawn gamboling through the field beside the barn. When I turn back around, she takes my hand and smiles. “I’m Flora,” she says.
We enter the white-table clothed bistro. A man with a black bandanna tied around his head walks in from the kitchen and says, in the same manner as his wife, “I’m Bob.” Bob and Flora met in New York, when Bob was running an internet company that sold tickets online and Flora was teaching English literature at Cornell. When it came time to retire, they moved back to Flora’s family farm, where they rebuilt the barn. At first they thought maybe they’d sell antiques, but seeing as Bob had spent his off time training to be a French chef (you know, as one does), the couple decided to open a cafe instead.
The cafe itself is cheerful and airy. The walls are painted a bright white, and there are just four tables in the space. A mishmash of music memorabilia hangs on the walls (a tribute to Flora’s brother, Dannie, who was a music producer, and for whom the restaurant is named), and each place setting is a different set of china. Black and white checks here, delicate pink flowers there.
For my second lunch, Bob, Flora and their newly hired chef (who trained at Le Cordon Bleu and used to cook at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas) have prepared what they call a “small tasting.” Over the next hour and a half, they bring us shrimp cocktail with homemade sauce and the best crab cake I’ve ever had (with a Sriracha rémoulade) and blackened shrimp with a spice rub mix THAT IS TO DIE FOR.
And rack of lamb (which my butter knife goes through like, well, butter) and sweet potato soufflé and potatoes au gratin and Cornish hen over a mushroom reduction with asparagus—oh, and crème brûlée and a rich chocolate cake. By now, I am wholly wishing that instead of a travel writer, I could be a food writer, both so that I could write better about how delicious everything is and so that I could come back here and eat again just for a review of this place.
But I am not a food writer. So I ask Bob, “What makes Hope Hope for you?”
Bob’s answer echoes his fellow townsfolk: “It’s the people, and that’s for sure. The kindest people. We came here, and nobody knew us. A guy comes down the road on a four-wheeler with a basket of tomatoes, comes to the door and gives ’em to us. In New York … you’d be arrested for driving down the road on a four-wheeler. And if you need a tractor … ” He points to the window behind me. “We had gazebo out there. Storm left it in a heap. People came with a tractor, cleaned it up, fixed our sign. It’s the people.”
Mark must not be as full as I am. All I feel like doing is purring like a satisfied cat, while Mark continues to joyfully narrate our adventure. “Hope,” Mark says. “There’s so much more than you believe. Some small towns can be provincial, not let people not born here succeed. Hope is the exact opposite.”
And then Mark proceeds to prove just that. First, he takes me to the Farm Bureau, where an agent by the name of Reed Camp, who transferred into town last year, tells me Hope is about “family, of course, and being closer to my deer stand—that drew me—but we really like the people. Great, salt-of-the-earth people.”
Then he takes me to the University of Arkansas’ Southwest Research and Extension Center, where Dr. Victor Ford, who came back to town eight years ago, tells me that Hope, for him, “is the people. It’s really a nice blend of Southern hospitality with a commitment to the community.”
And then he takes me to Hempstead Hall, where Dolly Henley, who retired from her position as director of parks and recreation in Nashville, Arkansas, and became director of the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope’s multiuse facility, tells me Hope is made of “the people and the community. The name itself gives us a reason for the future.”
Finally, Mark whisks me back to the chamber of commerce, where my head is truly spinning. Hope is much more than I expected, much more than I’d hoped. But apparently, there’s even more to it than I know now. “There’s so much more I could’ve told you, so much more I could’ve showed you, so much more I could’ve fed you. I guess you’ll just have to come back.”
So much more he could’ve fed me? You can bet your sweet watermelons I’ll be back.