HOPE, Ark.—Pink and red pulp wrapped in a hard green rind was the chief consumable commodity during the third and final day of the 41st annual Hope Watermelon Festival.
Thousands of watermelon fans came from as far away as Kansas on Saturday to Hope Fair Park to consume slices of the rich, juicy, sweet delight.
For patrons' comfort, festival planners set up a large, open-air tent where watermelon enthusiasts could gather around shaded picnic tables to take sanctuary from the summer heat and fork and spoon their way through the beloved summer fruit. The discarded seeds produced by this seasonal indulgence found their way to a proper burial in a lush carpet of thickly scattered sawdust on the tent's floor.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who spoke briefly before the Politically Correct Watermelon Eating Contest, said he first came to the festival 30 years ago.
"I love supporting the great traditions of Arkansas, and this is a tradition we don't want to miss because it's all about family and community," he said.
The contest involved state, county and municipal officeholders. Hempstead County Sheriff James Singleton won first place, as he has for the last five years.
The festival's final day also drew some office-seekers.
Central Arkansas native Alex Ray, who will run for land commissioner in the May 2018 state primary, arrived just in time for the traditional Watermelon Seed Spitting Contest.
"It's just wonderful to get a chance to meet folks out here and to just get a chance to talk to them about the great things that Arkansas has to offer," Ray said. "I'm just excited to get a chance to talk to people about how we can take responsibility for leveraging our state's lands and waterways for recreational and economic development."
Ray added that the Red River can potentially be made navigable for transportation and delivery of goods and services by barge from Shreveport, La., to Southwest Arkansas.
Beckie Moore, the recently named director of Hope-Hempstead Chamber of Commerce, said this year's festival drew 111 arts, crafts and food vendors—perhaps one of the largest groups the festival has had.
"I've been walking around and handing out surveys to our vendors so we can see what we can improve on for next year,"she said.
Texarkana, Texas resident Mike Lusk, said this is his first time as a vendor at the festival.
"It's kind of fun getting to go to these different places and getting to know different people," he said. "There's a lot of work involved in this, but sometimes it doesn't feel like work."
The event also had 750 locally supplied watermelons for public consumption—which is usually about the number needed each year. "We have a festival committee that really stepped up in a very magnificent way this year," Moore said. "The committee, along with the chamber's Board of Directors, have done a superb job, and we look forward to next year."