HOPE, Ark. — As a tourist attraction, Hope, Ark., once offered little more than 200-pound watermelons. The world's all-time whopper was grown there, in the fertile fields of southwestern Arkansas: 260 pounds, nurtured to full maturity by farmer Ivan Bright.
For years, Hope's hog-sized melons have lured folks to its annual Watermelon Festival. Thousands come every August to spit melon seeds and wave to the smiling Watermelon Queen.
But this year, thanks to a native son named Bill Clinton, Hope's appeal to tourists has broadened. Hope is angling to have dual re-known as a place where both world-class watermelons and United States Presidents grow.
Since the Democratic National Convention ended July 16, as many as 25 tourists a week have shown up in downtown Hope, asking locals to point them to the street where chubby little Billy once scampered in rolled-up overalls and cowboy boots. Now, with Clinton having won the election, there's no telling how many recreational vehicles will come creaking off Interstate 30 in search of a slice of American history.
"We've had people from Finland, Great Britian and Germany," says Wanda Hays, head of Hope's Chamber of Commerce. "We just didn't realize how many people were interested in seeing that type of thing."
But Hope's city fathers and business people have quickly recovered from their initial surprise. You can already buy "Birthplace of Bill Clinton" T-shirts in the Western Sizzlin' Steak House ($9.99), Russell's Smokehouse, Quality Inn and other emporia. Officials have printed up 25,000 maps showing relevant points of interest. Two billboards have been erected to lure motorists off the interstate.
"If people want to spend them, we just love them Yankee dollars," says Perry Campbell, owner of two of Hope's three motels and its busiest restaurant.
Visitors who take Hope up on its invitation will find authentic small-town atmosphere, and plenty of it. A sprawling agricultural and manufacturing community of 10,000, Hope has a downtown of one-story buildings overseen by the white spire of the First Baptist Church and a water tank inscribed with the city's name. A feed store anchors the downtown. Union Pacific railroad tracks crisscross the town at street level, and slow-moving freight trains stop lunchtime traffic.
Historic structures are easily found. There is, for example, the home at 117 S. Hervey Ave., where Clinton spent his first two years. Standing right off I-30, just a few hundred yards from the railroad tracks, it lacks something of the grandeur of, say, Jefferson's Mount Vernon or Roosevelt's Hyde Park. The sagging two-story building, now more gray than white, was barely habitable even before it was damaged by a fire earlier this year.
Embarrassed local businessmen have offered to buy the home from the family now living there. "We tried but they don't want to sell," Hays says.
Instead, tourists are steered to the well-kept home at 321 E. 13th St., where Clinton lived from the ages of 2 to 6. (After that, his mother and stepfather moved up the road to Hot Springs.) Guide maps also direct you to what remains of Miss Mary Purkins' School for Little Folks, which little Billy attended, and other historic sites.
While in town, you may run across Clinton's Uncle Buddy Grisham, cousin Falba Lively, or other kin, all with tales to tell about little Billy. If not, the several hundred or so people who say they're "distant relations" will oblige. So will acquaintances such as Wilma Rowe Booker, who says she was the attending nurse during Clinton's birth.
"I was the first to spank his butt," nurse Rowe says, beaming.
If not a glamorous destination, Hope is not an expensive one, either. The Best Western, Comfort Inn and Holiday Inn all rent rooms for $29-$40. And you can't spend your money on demon rum, since Hope and all of surrounding Hempstead County is dry.
Dinner at either of Hope's two principal restaurants, the Western Sizzlin' or El Matador, will run you about $8 a head, if you eat big. At lunch, the Sizzlin' offers an all-you-can eat buffet.
"Lord, when I see how people load up their plates," Campbell says, "I do cry a tear."
Once you've seen all of Hope's sights, you can head down the road just 31 miles to the birthplace of another 1992 presidential candidate.
Ross Perot's hometown of Texarkana may not have huge watermelons, but at least you can drink.