Down-home fun: Festivals offer family entertainment

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published July 11, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated July 9, 2013 at 5:57 p.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Colorful Chevrolets were presented for inspection by judges and visitors during Brickfest in Malvern. Classic cars, trucks and motorcycles can also be seen at several other festivals in the region this summer.

Offering blue ribbons and barbecue cook-offs, classic cars and live music, handmade quilts and giant corn dogs — summer festivals draw big crowds, allowing communities to shine.

Malvern celebrated its claim as the Brick Capital of the World with Brickfest 2013 on June 28 and 29, with a festival featuring arts and crafts, midway-type rides, food vendors, car and motorcycle shows and a concert by Lonestar.

Von Michael, chairwoman of the Brick-B-Q cook-off, said 20 barbecue teams from three states cooked ribs and beans for the judges, then served the food to the Brickfest audience that Saturday afternoon.

Nikki Launius, executive director of the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce, said the 34th annual festival was the biggest and most successful Brickfest ever, with several thousand people attending the events on Friday and Saturday. Malvern police estimated that as many as 5,000 people attended the Saturday-night concert.

“It was the largest crowd I have ever seen gathered in Malvern,” Launius said. “It was truly a community effort of city, county, businesses, the chamber and churches working for a common goal. When a community works together, positive things happen.”

For some communities, a popular festival can shape the image of a town. Hope may be the birthplace of two governors, including a president, but the city might be best known in the state as the place of giant watermelons.

It is a big deal for the community, said Mark Keith, director of the Hope-Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce.

“It is a good thing for a community to be associated with a fruit or vegetable,” Keith said. “A watermelon means summer. A watermelon makes you smile.”

This year, the Watermelon Festival will be held Aug. 8-10. Keith said the three-day festival drew 30,000 visitors last year. Like Brickfest, the Watermelon Festival ends with a country-music concert on the Saturday night of the festival.

“This is our fifth year of big concerts, with the help of the Hope Parks and Recreation Department, along with donations of brick and concrete. A big stage was built and opened in 1997, and I thought it would fit anything,” Keith said. “It opens into a softball field where people can gather for the show.”

This year’s concert will feature country singer Tracy Lawrence, along with an opening act. Reserve seats are $40, and general-admission tickets for adults over age 10 are $12 in advance or $20 the day of the event.

In Hope, the festival dates back to the 1920s, when residents of the farming community served cold watermelon to passengers of the many trains that stopped in Hope. The event was shut down during the Great Depression.

The city celebrated its centennial in 1975 with a festival. The success of that event led to establishing a new Watermelon Festival two years later. The 2013 festival is the 37th annual celebration of Hempstead County’s famous crop, the giant watermelon.

Three times, the winner of the biggest watermelon contest has made the record books as the world’s largest.

“That was in 1979, 1985 and 2005,” Keith said. “All three record-breaking melons were raised by the Bright family.”

In 2005, Lloyd Bright brought the festival’s largest watermelon ever, weighing in at 268.8 pounds.

“I was there when it was taken from the field and brought to the festival,” Keith said. “I helped carry some of the melons, but not that one. If it was dropped, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t part of the team.”

The seeds of the giants are saved and shared, and many local growers can trace their big watermelons back to that last world champion, Keith said. At the fair, ice-cold watermelon will be sold by the slice for $1.25 each day, and numerous melon growers will have whole melons on sale at the festival for visitors to take home.

The Watermelon Olympics will also be held, pitting local teams against each other in such events as the melon toss, the seed-spitting contest and the watermelon-eating contest. Plus, there will be a volleyball tournament.

The modern-day Hope Watermelon Festival features numerous activities, including an arts and crafts exhibition. Nearly 300 arts and crafts booths, set up on the festival grounds, will feature handmade items from six states.

There is also an antique car show and antique engine show featuring old steam engines that were once used much as tractors are used today to run farm equipment.

Cars, trucks and motorcycles — either antiques or from the muscle-car age — are a popular attraction at many of the festivals around Arkansas. Dozens of vehicles were on display at Brickfest, including a turquoise and white 1957 Chevy that was being shined up by Pat Mays of Glen Rose.

“My husband has several cars here, but this is my favorite,” she said. “We bought it in Maryland, and it was in good shape, but we have done some things to fix it up.”

Classic cars are the centerpiece of the Cruisin’ in the Park festival that will start Friday at Feaster Park in Arkadelphia. Area residents’ classic cars and trucks and motorcycles will be judged, along with vehicles from Texas and other surrounding states on Saturday. Trophies for the best of the classics will be presented at 1 p.m.

Last year’s car collection ranged from a classic Cord, a futuristic-looking car from the 1930s, to the latest Corvette.

“This is our 10th year with a car show,” said Mike Volz, director of the Arkadelphia Parks and Recreation Department. “We added the barbecue cook-off eight years ago, and then we added live music.”

The barbecue cook-off judging will start at 10 a.m., and the awards will be presented at 2 p.m. In addition, the festival includes a two-mile run, softball tournaments and live music both days.

Also this weekend, the fifth biannual Quiltfest with the theme of Borders and Beyond will take place at the Hot Springs Convention Center. The event, celebrating all things quilting, will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

“Most of the quilts at the festival come from Arkansas and Texas,” said Elizabeth Wynn, president of the Hot Springs Area Quilt Guild, who also chairs the show committee. “In the past, we have also had quilts made out east. We will have 226 quilts on display this year.”

About 1,200 people attended the event in Hot Springs. Most attendees are nonquilters who come to see the quilts on display. Quiltfest also attracts serious quilters from this area of the country who not only show their quilts, but are looking for new ideas, new quilting products and the latest technology.

“Some of the quilters just come to shop,” Wynn said. “We have a long list of vendors, and admission is only $5.”

The quilts are judged in seven categories, with ribbons given for first, second and third place, Wynn said.

“The categories include pieced quilts, appliqués, wall hangings and table runners, as well as an art decor category,” the show chairwoman said. “People make a quilt and sew on buttons, ribbons or use thread painting, almost anything you can imagine. These quilts will not be going on a bed.”

Quilts are a popular feature of many festivals, including the Watermelon Festival. At the recent Brickfest in Malvern, the show included well-used quilts dating back to the 1930s, as well as the latest trends in art quilting.

So anyone who wants to see ribbons on a quilt, admire shiny chrome or enjoy a giant watermelon can head out to take in one of the region’s festivals this summer.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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