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Slice of the good life


Long before it was known as the birthplace of President Bill Clinton, Hope was known for its big watermelons.

One of my best assignments in recent years has been to emcee the celebrity watermelon-eating contest at the Hope Watermelon Festival. The event was canceled this year due to the pandemic.

“The festival originated in 1926 and has been ongoing, though not continuous, since 1977,” writes southwest Arkansas historian Mary Nell Turner. “There’s no admission fee for the four-day event, usually held the second week in August at Hope’s Fair Park. Activities include watermelon-eating and seed-spitting contests, fiddling, arm-wrestling contests and as many as 200 vendors displaying their wares. The competition for growing big melons was a creation of John S. Gibson. In 1916, he began to offer modest prizes for the largest vegetables and watermelons.

“Local farmers Hugh and Edgar Laseter developed a seed line in an attempt to win the contest. Hugh grew Arkansas’ first giant watermelon. The 136-pound melon was harvested Aug. 12, 1925, and generated so much excitement that the first watermelon festival was held the next year. The first five festivals drew large crowds. The crowd was estimated at 30,000 people in 1928. Visitors traveled on Missouri Pacific, Frisco and Louisiana & Arkansas special trains from Little Rock, Shreveport and towns in Oklahoma.”

Events were filmed by Fox, Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and other studios to be shown in newsreels in theaters across the country. Large speakers were borrowed from Arkansas Power & Light Co. so the crowds could hear.

“The program included a parade with floats, bands and decorated cars,” Turner writes. “At Fair Park, a coronation ceremony was held. Introduction of the maids and the crowning of a queen was followed by a speech from a visiting dignitary. Visitors were served free iced watermelon. The day ended with dances in the Elks Hall, a skating rink or in the streets. In 1928, two trains were stopped at noon so passengers could be served slices of watermelon. The first queen was Laurine Lewis of Hope, who was chosen from the festival maids. The maids, in turn, had been selected by a vote in each political township.

“Speakers also attracted visitors. Congressman Tilman B. Parks crowned the first and second queens. The Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joe T. Robinson of Arkansas, was the guest speaker at the third festival in 1928. He returned to speak and crown the queen in 1930. Oklahoma Gov. William J. Holloway spoke in 1929, and Arkansas Gov. Harvey Parnell crowned the queen. In addition to problems caused by the Great Depression, the handling of the large crowd became too much for the small town.”

Oscar Middlebrooks briefly revived watermelon fever in the area when he grew a 195-pound watermelon in a field near Patmos in Hempstead County in 1935.

“The melon was shipped to movie star Dick Powell, an Arkansas native,” Turner writes. “President Calvin Coolidge was another recipient of a big melon from Hope.”

By the 1970s, Pod Rogers of the Hope Star was traveling across the country promoting Hope watermelons. He urged officials at the local chamber of commerce to start the festival again, and they did in 1977.

Meanwhile, the Bright family began receiving nationwide attention for the big melons being grown on the family farm just east of Hope. Lloyd Bright wrote a 1978 book titled “Producing Giant Watermelons.”

With the 1992 election of Clinton as president, Hope had another reason for people to pull off the interstate. Clinton had spent the first four years of his life in his grandparents’ house at 117 S. Hervey St. The house opened to the public as a museum in June 1997.

“The house was built in 1917 for Dr. H.S. Garrett, who evidently designed it to imitate his previous dwelling in France,” the late Bill Norman wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The 2,100-square-foot home contains six rooms, including a kitchen, living room, bedroom and the nursery where Clinton slept. The house was purchased in 1938 by Eldridge Cassidy and Edith Grisham Cassidy, Clinton’s grandparents. Their daughter, Virginia Cassidy Blythe, made her home with them after the death of her husband, William Jefferson Blythe III, while she was still expecting their only child.

“Clinton was born at Julia Chester Hospital in Hope. The building no longer stands, but a plaque marks the spot where it once existed. Clinton’s grandparents raised him in their home while their daughter studied nursing in New Orleans. When he married Roger Clinton, the Clintons acquired a house at 321 E. 13th St. in Hope in 1950. They moved to Hot Springs in 1953. The Cassidy family continued to own the house on South Hervey Street until 1956. The house passed through other owners and was vacant after 1992, when it was damaged by an electrical fire.”

After Clinton became president in January 1993, a foundation was formed to acquire the house and restore it.

“The Clinton Birthplace Foundation sought to raise $1.5 million over five years, 40 percent of which was intended to create an endowed fund to maintain the house for perpetuity,” Norman wrote. “Controversy was ignited when accusations were made that wealthy donors, some from other nations, hoped for favors from the president’s administration because of their gifts. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 1994, bypassing the usual rule that a structure must have achieved significance more than 50 years before being registered.

“An exception to the 50-year benchmark was granted because the home was ‘the single property most significantly and exclusively associated with President William Jefferson Clinton’s humble beginnings, the inner strength that he learned from his mother and the dedication to purpose that has sustained him through his distinguished career.'”

The foundation had to repair the roof while adding new siding. It later acquired furniture to make the house look like it had in the late 1940s.

“The president’s mother and former neighbors described the house as they remembered it, and some residents of Hope contributed furniture and other articles for the museum,” Norman wrote. “A visitors’ center was added outside the house, and a rose garden was dedicated to Clinton’s mother. The museum opened to the public on June 1, 1997. In December 2010, it was designated a National Historic Site by the U.S. Department of the Interior.”

A Christmas Day fire in 2015 damaged the home. It reopened to the public on July 30, 2016.

One of the things that helps Hope retain its viability as a regional center these days is the presence of a community college, the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana. The school was founded as the Red River Vocational-Technical School in 1965. As part of a statewide effort to transform technical schools into two-year colleges, it was renamed Red River Technical College in 1991.

In March 1996, Hempstead County residents approved a quarter-cent sales tax to support the college. The school became an affiliate of the University of Arkansas System and was renamed the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope in July 1996. A branch campus opened at Texarkana in the fall of 2012. In early 2019, the college changed its name to University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana as the number of college students at Texarkana grew.

For those interested in history, a trip to nearby Washington is a must. I’ve always considered Historic Washington State Park to be our state’s version of Colonial Williamsburg.

Washington, which had a population of 730 in the 1880 census, was down to just 180 residents by the 2010 census. The community is now dominated by the state park.

“The Southwest Trail was built during Arkansas’ territorial period, linking St. Louis to Texas and crossing Arkansas from the northeast corner to the southwest corner,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “William Stevenson, a Methodist preacher, established Ebenezer Campground for revival meetings on a sandy hill that would soon become the site of Washington. Elijah Stuart built a log house on the same hill, perhaps as early as 1818, and his house also served as an inn and tavern. Hempstead County was organized in December 1818 and designated Stuart’s tavern as its first permanent seat of government in 1824 because of its central location.

“The land around the tavern was surveyed and laid out in square blocks oriented along the Southwest Trail. A land auction in 1826 created the structure of the city, and merchants began to conduct business there soon thereafter. Washington applied for incorporation in 1830. Incorporation lapsed following the Civil War and wasn’t reinstated until 1880. Important early settlers in the city included John Johnson, Ephraim Mirick and Abraham Block. James Black established a blacksmith shop in which he reportedly fashioned the first bowie knife for James Bowie in 1831.”

Stevenson, a circuit-riding preacher, is the person credited with bringing Methodism to Arkansas.

“Swept into the enthusiastic Methodism of the Second Great Awakening, he felt a desire to spread the faith that led him into sparsely settled areas,” Michael Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Stevenson, who was born in October 1768 in South Carolina on the border of Cherokee territory, had Presbyterian parents. His mother later converted to the Baptist faith. Stevenson heard a Methodist preacher for the first time at age 20. He converted at age 31.

Stevenson and his wife moved with their eight children to Missouri in 1809. He wrote one of the earliest accounts of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12. He also ran unsuccessfully against Stephen F. Austin for a seat in the Missouri Territorial Legislature in 1815.

Stevenson moved to Hempstead County in 1816.

“In 1817, he was appointed by the Methodists’ Missouri Conference as a circuit rider, along with John Harris, for the Hot Springs Circuit,” Johnson writes. “The circuit included all of Arkansas south of the Arkansas River. From 1818-25, Stevenson served as a presiding elder in Arkansas, except for a couple of years when he suffered from poor health. His ministry reached out to frontier families over a large area of Arkansas, often traveling through difficult conditions. Most of his work was with white settlers, though he did record small numbers of black and native American converts.

“Stevenson’s leadership of Arkansas Methodism was highly energetic. Methodist ministries in Arkansas shrank after Stevenson relocated to Louisiana in 1826. Stevenson was also involved in early Arkansas politics. He was elected as the representative from Hempstead County to the first General Assembly of the Arkansas Territory in 1820. He was chosen to serve as speaker but resigned the position after one day for reasons that are unclear. … It was Stevenson who proposed the motion to make Little Rock the capital of the territory.”

The territorial capital moved from Arkansas Post to Little Rock in 1821.

Washington became quite cosmopolitan for its time. In addition to Methodists attracted by Stevenson, there were Jews such as Block, who was the patriarch of the first documented Jewish family to come to Arkansas.

Block was born in either 1780 or 1781 in Bohemia. He came to Virginia at about age 12. He served with the Richmond Light Infantry Blues in the War of 1812. He and his wife had 14 children.

“In 1823, Block began to liquidate property inherited from his father-in-law and began the process of moving the family westward toward Arkansas,” David Markus writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This move was probably brought about by limited economic opportunities in Richmond, as well as the influx of capital from his wife’s inheritance. While his wife Fanny was pregnant with the couple’s seventh child, Block left for New Orleans to begin establishing economic ties to the area. By 1825, he had started a business in Washington and summoned his family west. With seven young children in tow, Fanny left for Arkansas via New Orleans in 1826. As was family custom, she and the children didn’t join Block in Washington until a suitable house was built in 1827.

“Although the Blocks had strong ties to the Jewish community in New Orleans, they were unable to attract others in that community to join them in Washington. As a result, their only connections to the broader American Jewish community were periodicals and occasional business trips to New Orleans. This lack of community did not, however, diminish the family’s ties to the Jewish faith. When the first congregation, Shangrai Chesed (Gates of Mercy), formed in New Orleans in 1827, Block joined as a founding member. This limited contact with other Jews did, however, restrict the manner in which the Blocks practiced their faith in the home. As a consequence of their religious isolation in Arkansas, the family did not keep kosher, and the majority of the Block children married and left the faith.”

Along with his sons, Block established businesses not only at Washington but also at Fulton, at Paraclifta in Sevier County, at New Orleans and at several stops along the railroad that ran from Houston to Dallas. The family home was restored and became part of Historic Washington State Park.

Block died in March 1857 on a trip to New Orleans and is buried there.

Meanwhile, James Black, who was born in May 1800 in New Jersey, ran away from home at age 8 and went to Philadelphia. He became an apprentice to a silverplater there. His apprenticeship expired when Black was 18, and he headed west. He first settled at Bayou Sara in Louisiana and set up a blacksmith shop.

“Some think that Black met Jim Bowie for the first time there in 1822,” writes Josh Williams of Historic Washington State Park. “In late 1823, after battling disease and major floods, Black decided to move. He went up the Red River to Fulton and settled in the vicinity of Washington. Around 1824, Black was hired by local blacksmith William Shaw. While working for Shaw, Black made a reputation for himself in the community as a skilled craftsman and blacksmith, and Shaw offered to make Black a partner in his business. Shaw had nine children. The eldest daughter was Anne, age 16. Black and Anne Shaw fell in love, but her father objected to the relationship. Black decided to move from Washington to western Arkansas Territory.”

Black settled along the Rolling Fork River just west of Paraclifta. He built a dam on the river and established a gristmill along with a blacksmith shop.

“James and Gilbert Clark also settled in the vicinity and set up a salt works,” Williams writes. “Not long after they were settled, the U.S. government declared that the land they settled was part of Indian Territory. Black, the Clark brothers  and other settlers had to move to other lands. Black moved back to Washington. He hadn’t forgotten Anne Shaw. There were married June 29, 1828, at the Hempstead County Courthouse in Washington without the consent of William Shaw. There were married for seven years and had five children.”

Black set up his blacksmith shop and became known for the quality of his knives. An article in the Washington Telegraph on Dec. 8, 1841, said he had made Bowie’s famous knife in late 1831.

Bill Worthen, the former director of the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock and an expert on frontier knives, writes: “The bowie knife, made popular in the 1830s, has evolved into a specific form in current use. The bowie knife was worn for defensive purposes. Its primary function was for personal combat. It was designed to be part of a gentleman’s attire, and the key difference between the bowie knife and a hunting knife, a dagger or a dirk was initially the quality of finish of the bowie. Bowie knives came in a variety of forms — with or without guards, with differently shaped blades — and often were adorned with silver and other decoration, sometimes including etching or engraving on their metal surfaces.

“The knife got its name from a pioneer family who settled in early Arkansas and Louisiana. Jim Bowie, the best known of the brothers, killed one man and seriously injured another with a ‘big knife’ in what was known as the Sandbar Duel on Sept. 19, 1827, upriver from Natchez, Miss. Bowie later moved to Texas and died at the Alamo. In the early 1830s, the term ‘bowie knife’ began to be used — possibly shorthand for ‘knives like Bowie’s’ — for the Mississippi River Valley region. Jim Bowie’s brother Rezin promoted the knife’s association with the Bowie name by giving away several presentation knives and attributing the design of the first bowie knife — the one wielded by Jim at the Sandbar Duel — to Rezin himself.”

Early Arkansas leaders Daniel Webster Jones and August Garland said they heard stories from James Black stating that he had made the knife for Bowie at Washington.

“Black’s knives, embellished with silver plating on the ricasso (the part of the blade immediately above the handle) and silver around the distinctive, coffin-shaped handle, became the most copied of all bowie knives,” Worthen writes. “Many Sheffiled, England, cutlers produced knives with the coffin handle and/or elements of the silver wrap around the handle. The connection of these knives to Arkansas, and the state’s reputation for the use of the blade, inspired an alternative term to ‘bowie knife.’ The ‘Arkansas knife’ and then ‘Arkansas toothpick’ were used synonymously for the bowie knife in the antebellum period. Only a few references from that period make a distinction between an Arkansas toothpick and a bowie knife.

“In the 1830s, several states passed laws establishing sanctions against the use of the bowie knife and the Arkansas toothpick. The state’s reputation suffered because of its association with violence and the toothpick, and some people called Arkansas the Toothpick State. By the time of the Civil War, the term ‘bowie knife’ had come to be used for any large knife, and many soldiers went off to war with such knives. Today, ‘bowie knife’ usually is defined as a large knife with a cross guard and a blade with a clipped point, while the ‘Arkansas toothpick’ is a knife with a double-edged blade coming to a point.”

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