Hope History Highlight: The Watermelon Festival’s over a century long legacy

Photo: Farmer Oscar D. Middlebrooks with his 195lb watermelon in 1935

The Watermelon Festival today is now a staple for the City of Hope, attracting upwards of 20,000 visitors to the city for just the festival alone. However, many people, including Hope citizens and its visitors that attend the festival year after year, may not know just how far back the origins of the famous Hope Watermelon Festival go.

The origins of the Hope Watermelon Festival can be traced back as far as 1916 when John S. Gibson, a pharmacist and owner of the Gibson Drug Store who also sold watermelon seeds, started hosting a competition for growing the largest watermelon to promote the economy. In these competitions, Gibson would offer some prizes for whoever could grow the largest vegetables and, more specifically, the largest watermelons.

This competition drew the attention of Hope farmers Hugh and Edgar Laseter who would go on to develop a Watermelon seed line in order to win the competition. Hugh was successful with this and on Aug. 12, 1925, he grew a 136-pound watermelon, Arkansas’s first giant watermelon. This watermelon generated a lot of excitement in the community which would lead to the first watermelon festival the following year in 1926.

Back then in the early days of the Festival, the Hope Chamber of Commerce would host a one-day festival every year where citizens of Hope would serve watermelons to train passengers that would ride through and/or stop in the city. The 1920s festivals also would host a “Watermelon Queen” pageant and a large parade with decorated cars, floats, and bands to go along with the serving of the Watermelons. The festival would end with dances in the Elks Hall, a skating rink, or in the streets.

All three of these events would bring around 20,000 to Hope in just the one day of the event and in 1928, the festival brought in 30,000 people. People from all over the area would come to visit including from Little Rock, Shreveport, and all over Oklahoma. Major entertainment studios, including Fox, Pathe, Paramount, and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer News (MGM) would film some of the events that took place to show in movie theaters across the country. Loud speakers would also have been borrowed from companies in Little Rock to broadcast the festival to the large gathering of people.

This festival didn’t last long, however, as after the Great Depression hit, the City of Hope had to end it due to no longer being able to accommodate the large crowds it would attract due to the economic effects the Depression had on the city. The festival was briefly brought back for one year in 1935, however, when a farmer named Oscar D. Middlebrooks grew a 195-pound watermelon near Patmos. This record-breaking watermelon was shipped around the country and ended up in the possession of many famous people including the 30th President of the United States Calvin Cooledge and Arkansas-born movie star Dick Powell.

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It wasn’t until 1975 when the City of Hope celebrated its centennial that word of reviving the famous Watermelon festival from decades before started up again. The centennial celebration was a massive success so much so that local newspaper man C.M. “Pod” Rogers convinced the Hope Chamber of Commerce to organize and sponsor the new Watermelon Festival in 1977. The success of this revival led to the festival becoming an annual event.

The revived Watermelon Festival really started gaining national attention after Ivan and Lloyd Bright grew the first ever 200-pound watermelon in 1979, breaking the 44-year-old record previously held by Middlebrooks. Only six years later, in 1985, Lloyd’s 10-year-old produced a 260-pound watermelon which would go on to be recorded in the 1992 Guinness Book of World Records. This record wouldn’t be broken until Sept. 3, 2005 when Lloyd Bright would grow a 268.8-pound watermelon.

Today, the festival is a huge success and one of, if not the, biggest attraction the small community of Hope has to offer.

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