Bill Clinton And Big Melons
Bill Clinton was born in Hope, and his birthplace draws its share of tourists. The town's visitor center and museum, however, is more entertaining. Until the 1990s it stressed Hope's then-only claim to fame: watermelons. Now it must accommodate both Bill and big melons, a juxtaposition that sounds funny, and it is.
Many towns in America are proud of their big watermelons. But Hope's melons were media darlings, thanks to a man named Pod Rogers, a promoter who made connections to Hollywood long before the Clintons. Photos in the museum show celebrities such as The Smothers Brothers and Monty Hall posing with Hope watermelons. According to museum director Gary Johnson, Rogers would routinely send watermelons to movie and TV stars, although no one knows if they were eaten, turned into party punch bowls, or just thrown away.
Hope made world headlines in 1985 when local farmer Ivan Bright grew a record-breaking 200-pound watermelon. A cast was made of the melon and an exact replica was created from it, which is still displayed in the museum. In 2005 Ivan's son, Lloyd Bright, grew a 268-pounder -- a new world record watermelon -- but it broke before it could be cast and preserved for posterity.
It would be difficult for an ex-President to compete with a local celebrity like the world's largest watermelon, and the Hope Visitor Center and Museum doesn't try to balance the two. Instead, it offers some tantalizing Bill Clinton tidbits -- such as his naming his dog after his political mentor, Uncle Buddy -- and leaves the heavy lifting to the Birthplace. Gary told us that the museum used to get angry anti-Clinton visitors, but not much any more, "mostly women who come in while their husband sits in the car." As to why the museum didn't just stick with watermelons, Gary was pragmatic. "Watermelons don't bring in the money. Bill Clinton brings in the money."
We suggested that more visitors might be interested in the big watermelons if the museum sold seeds from them in its gift shop. Gary was bewildered by the suggestion; in a farming community like Hope, you don't sell seeds from a champion crop to tourists. He suggested that we try the farm store over on US 67, but they told us that we were crazy too; those seeds are way too valuable as future watermelons to be sold as souvenirs.
Our perspective is no doubt severely skewed, but earlier in the day we'd visited the Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum and learned that swatches of Clyde Barrow's death pants -- at $200 apiece -- were selling briskly. We asked ourselves, wouldn't seeds from the world's largest watermelon be just as desirable -- to a certain income bracket of tourists -- as a clipping from a dead guy's pants? Bill Clinton may be bankable, but Hope can still mine gold from its melon patch.