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O#32: Hope, Arkansas
OJune 22, 2007


Hope, Arkansas is a town of roughly 10,000 people, located in Hempstead county, in the western part of the state.

During the World War II, Hope was home to the Southwestern Proving Grounds, a tract of land three miles wide and fifteen miles long where artillery shells and aerial bombs were tested. Hundreds of families had to be"relocated" (a favorite term of FDR's) from the farmland that that was seized by the government for the new facility. However, the Proving Grounds generated hundreds of jobs and brought some millions of dollars into the local economy, so on balance, the residents of Hope were not unhappy with the deal. After the war, the land was cleared of bombs and shells, and was sold back to public and private owners. To this day, unexploded ordnance is still occasionally found in the area.



As the Proving Grounds were closing down in 1946, the man who was to become Hope's most famous son was born. "I still believe in a place called Hope, " Bill Clinton said in his 1992 acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for president. Clinton lived in Hope from birth until his family from moved to Hot Springs when he was in the second grade. The Clinton birthplace house in Hope has been preserved as a museum, providing a boost to tourism and perhaps encouraging other businesses such as the one shown directly across the street.



In recent years, Hope has been featured in the news as the home to 10,000 unused FEMA trailers. The trailers were purchased by the government for victims of Hurricane Katrina, but due to some bureaucratic miscalculation were never given to the intended recipients. The trailers sit on the grounds of the municipal airport, for which the city of Hope receives $20,000 a month. The maintenance, repair and security required for the trailers has also created some local jobs, so once again, the residents of Hope are not unhappy to play host to the federal government. At least trailers don't explode.


Finally, if you're like me, you have probably often wondered where giant watermelons come from. The answer: Hope, Arkansas. Over the years, a succession of world record melons have come from the area, the largest weighing in at 268.8 pounds. The city's signature event is the annual Watermelon Festival, where these juicy giants and their growers are honored. (photo:



Balloons of Hope is a balloon rally held in Hope each June, a fundraiser for Sentimental Journey, a group dedicated to preserving the history of the Southwestern Proving Grounds. I had heard of this event while attending a balloon rally in Texas, and there being only a few balloon festivals in Arkansas, I had hastened to get in touch with the festival organizers. They expressed interest, but arrangements proceeded at a leisurely pace -- my e-mails got forwarded to various people, eventually ending up with a lady named Pat Rhoads. Several months were spent finding a supplier for the helium, and another few months actually getting a price quote on the gas. By the time things were cleared with the FAA in Little Rock, it was late May, and I was already on the road trip that would end in June in Hope.


I arrived in Hope a few days before the flight, which was scheduled for late Friday afternoon. Pat Rhoads asked Travis Estes, one of the festival volunteers, to help me out with my preparations. Travis was a retired machinist who did some farming; he was known to friends as Hubert, which initially confused me. Hubert(Travis) showed me around the area a bit, to give me some notion of area I'd be flying in; he took me to the tiny local TV station to be interviewed, and to the local hardware store, to buy some replacement parts for my inflation gear. He and Pat helped me fill my sandbags from a sandpile belonging to the local utility company where Pat worked.


Because of the delays in comfirming that the flight would take place, none of my regular crew chiefs were available to assist in Hope. Luckily, Brian Shafer, a balloonist from Texas who had helped at my flight in Palestine, Texas, volunteered to come to Hope to help out.