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Watermelon Season Brings Out Best In Hope-Hempstead County/Local Grower Carries On Tradition

By Scott Jester, 07/26/21 8:18 PM

There it sat on the kitchen counter. After months of waiting, a hot and way-too-tired gramps and his two way-too-excited granddaughters approached the beautiful watermelon in front of us, large knife in his hand. The first watermelon of the season was about to be cut; then devoured.


The knife went in the center of the ice-cold oval and with only two cuts down the center came the familiar “pop” as it cracked open from the pressure of all that water and delicious red fruit. With the first bite, there were instant sighs of satisfaction and we knew that the best of summer was here.


Now, for a bit of trivia and fun.


Is watermelon a fruit or vegetable? That’s too easy, it’s a fruit botanically, however it can also be listed as both. But, many don’t know the watermelon vine originated in South Africa long, long ago and blessedly somehow made it’s way to Southwest Arkansas.


Did you know watermelon rinds are also edible? They are full of nutrients with surprising health benefits as well. In China, the rinds are often stir-fried or stewed, while the seeds can be dried and roasted to make a light, easy snack.


Did you know while the Hope Watermelon Festival originated in 1926, the first competitions for the largest melon grown in the area began in 1919. That was way before time began for the young readers.


Where else can you get an award with your name and picture in the paper for spitting a watermelon seed?


While Hope is also on the national map for legendary concert, home speakers with the Klipsch name widely recognized; producing outstanding politicians including a two-term president, and even world-famous pork rinds, watermelons remain the calling card of this town of ten thousand.


Local growers are currently bringing their harvest to town, with overloaded pickup truck beds straining under the weight. But each load also contains plenty of planning, back-breaking care and constant weather-watching during the spring months. Trusting a process that means carrying on a tradition of families who work together to bring their beauties to town.


Meet the Bingham family. They operate the stand located on Highway 29 south about a mile south of UAHT on the right. Signs on both sides of the highway give customers a heads-up, but you can’t miss it. Nor, you can’t miss the smiles of two of the Binghams, Sherri and son Bryson, when you get out of the car.


Wife Sherri is no stranger to a watermelon patch as the daughter of longtime grower Randy Teague and her own husband Chad who learned under the guidance of one of the longest-known producers of table melons in the area.


“We grew for years and years, but our children were little and we stopped for awhile to put in chicken houses,” said Sherri. “Then COVID hit, we had a lot of extra time, the kids could help out and they could learn how to grow and sell watermelons too.


“We grow down in Bodcaw where my husband, Chad is from,” said continued. “He grew up working for Jackie May. That’s who taught him what he knows.”


What is it about Hope watermelons that separate them from the rest?


“Hope and the area is known for its record melons, but it’s the sweetness,” says husband Chad. “You really want a sandy soil, which works the best. The sandier the better it seems,” he continued.


“You can have too much rain in a season too, especially if they are in low lying areas,” he said. “It’s almost better if it’s pretty dry and you can irrigate them.


“Too much rain can affect the sweetness too. If you have too much rain or irrigate too much in the late stages, it can make it not as sweet. I’d trade sweetness for too much water any day.”


His sand theory must prove correct as anyone who has tried to dig into our area red clay hardened by the sun can prove to be impossible, but the natural addition of sand, allows roots to grow and water to pass easily to our favorite fruit as it grows.


Sand, soil, sun and water, then the magic happens, right? Not without help from farmhands or in many cases, those sleepy-headed children who keep asking for money and wondering how they can get more of it. It’s the perfect answer to both issues. The melons need continual maintenance, which not only help the melons grow, but also the roots of the family get a little bit deeper too.


“It’s good for kids to be involved,” Bingham stated. “I worked for a guy in Bodcaw when I was 12. It builds good character and shows you the value of hard work, and those are things I’d like to pass along to my kids Bryson, Judson, and Linley”


The future of watermelons and possibly humankind are in good hands with more families like the Binghams.


Ever wonder why the watermelons are at their peak during the hottest days of the summer where we can enjoy them to their fullest? A beautiful mystery, right? “God is good. All the time.” Including summer.


If big watermelons were the cornerstone of our beloved Watermelon Festival, then it didn’t take long to establish the first watermelon eating and seed spitting contests. From politicians to pint-sized kids, having your face buried in a large slice while in front of a large crowd, then lifting up with the grin that is part satisfaction and part “look-at-me-now” grin, melon pulp still dripping from your face. Priceless.


And seed spitting was invented, to be sure, when one person said to another after dealing with the pesky seeds, “I bet I can spit one of these things farther than you,” and a sport was born. It has yet to become an Olympic event, but give it time.


Watermelon carving is popular among the creative types, many of whom want to caress and take great care of the outside rine as they shave, gently poke, and carve their way to a beautiful picture, good enough for a wedding reception or special event. But to many, that’s just a waste of a lot of good tastin’ ‘melon meat.


Location, location, location, is the best description of another popular melon stand in Hope, sitting at the busy intersection of South Main and the Bill Clinton Bypass. That’s prime real estate. Real estate that has been rumored to have been recently purchased with plans for commercial development that will please many in Hope.


You read it here first.


Overseeing the stand on a hot Friday was Mikala Saunders, who was waiting on a load of 300 melons. Father-in-law Earl Saunders is also involved with procuring the melons and running the stand.


Her description of what it  takes for a prime watermelon also depends on sandy soil.


“You can’t get any melon that’s sweeter, that’s for sure,” she said with a chuckle. “We get our melons from as close to Hempstead County as you can get from just south in Lafayette County. There are other growers north of Hope and in Nevada County and it’s anywhere you can find that sandy soil, you better make use of it.


“Everything is reasonably priced,” Saunders continued. “I make a little money and I’m able to put some good food into someone’s hands.”


Her stand, along with many others in the area, sell homegrown vegetables including tomatoes, squash, cantaloupes, and fresh yard eggs.


Most watermelon stands are easy to find for the next few weeks from south of Hope through downtown and extending down North Hervey and beyond. It’s only a matter of turning on that blinker and making new friends and memories.


Don’t miss the 45th Annual Hope Watermelon Festival slated for August 5-7 in Hope’s Fair Park, featuring games, contests, a kid zone, and of course, ice cold watermelon by the slice or whole to take home and enjoy.


For more information about Bingham’s stand, they take large orders of 40 or more at 870-826-6693 and they are socially connected on Facebook at Bingham’s Hope Watermelon Stand.