There is a rule of thumb Hope/Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mark Keith uses to assess the Hope Watermelon Festival each year.

There is a rule of thumb Hope/Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mark Keith uses to assess the Hope Watermelon Festival each year. “The old rule is that if you can look out on the midway on Saturday at noon and you can't stir 'em with a stick, then it's good. And, right now, you can't stir 'em with a stick,” Keith said Saturday. Despite temperatures which hovered in the traditionally summertime mid-90s, the 37th annual Hope Watermelon Festival kept its cool and its reputation for big watermelons and big fun. With Hempstead County Sheriff James Singleton retaining the Politically Correct Watermelon Eating Contest crown, and Bodcaw teen Sabrina Bear making a comeback win in the Watermelon Eating World Championship, it came as little surprise that the big melons auctioned at the festival this year brought a total of $1,745, with Super 1 Foods, of Hope, manager Chris Belt paying $475 for the top melon, a 142-pounder grown by Lloyd Bright. Belt stayed quiet in the earlier going, as State Representative Brent Talley, D-McCaskill, bought the lightest entry, paying $120 for a 105 pound melon. Then, former Prescott Congressman Mike Ross, now of Little Rock, and a candidate for governor, squared off against Texan Bobby Pickett, of Alba, Texas, for a 115-pound melon, which eventually went to Ross for $190. Afterward, Texan Joe Gremela and Ross' running mate, lieutenant governor candidate John Burkhalter, went back and forth over another 115-pound melon, with Gremela paying $160 for it. Pickett was determined to buy a melon, and he and Burkhalter traded bids on a 132-pound melon, which the Texan bought for $400. But, Burkhalter returned to the bidding, albeit somewhat reluctantly at these prices, weighing in, again, against Pickett, and taking the 138-pound entry for $400. With the Texans still in the hunt, the bidding on the 142-pound melon picked up so quickly that auctioneer Don Worthey had all he could handle to stay with one bid before it went up. And, that was when Belt made his move, stepping into the middle of the bidding somewhere around the $200 mark and tenaciously countering the Texans to acquire the biggest of the melons. That appeared to set the tone for the remainder of the day, Saturday, as Keith reflected on the festival. “I felt like the crowd was in line with what we have had for a typical festival,” Keith said. “I felt like Thursday evening built into Friday and then it built into Saturday. We had particularly strong turnouts for the Kiwanis Club Chicken Dinner on Thursday; the Lions Club had a good turnout, obviously, because they were scrambling to find coleslaw, for their fish fry.” Keith was also impressed with the crowds for the Watermelon Idol preliminary on Friday night and the final Saturday saw local favorite, Maegan Estes, 19, of Hope, win the $300 cash prize and a spotlight performance opening for the Tracy Lawrence concert Saturday night. Estes said she intends to use the cash prize to buy books for the fall semester of her college studies. Second place in the event went to Carl “Action” Jackson, of Hope, and third place winner was Marli Humphrey, 12, of Texarkana. Emcee Brent Talley said a special group award went to the Angelic Angels. The festival continues to draw interest from organizations, families and vendors from across Arkansas and beyond, Keith said. “This year I may have had more phone calls from out of town, especially from Central Arkansas,” he said. “I would say about 205 to 210 vendors this year, where 200 is about average. I've had good feed back from several of them.” Keith said the positives have been very substantial this year. “I've heard more positives this year than I expected to hear,” he said.