Hope is a small town in Hempstead County with two claims to fame: it is the birthplace of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and it showcases some of the world's largest watermelons. The town is home to the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site. The two-story white frame house on South Hervey Street was where Clinton lived from his birth in 1946 until age four. The restored Missouri-Pacific Railroad depot serves as the Hope Visitor Center & Museum and contains local history exhibits and railroad memorabilia. It is also an AMTRAK stop.
The town developed as the Cairo and Fulton Railway (predecessor to the Union Pacific) tracks were being laid from Argenta (now North Little Rock) to Fulton. The first passenger train pulled into the station in1872. James Loughborough, the railroad company’s land commissioner, named the workmen’s camp in honor of his daughter Hope. The town was incorporated in 1875. Three more railways arrived in town by 1902. The Cairo and Fulton depot, Hope’s oldest building, was restored to its original condition after serving as a freight depot for fifty-three years and the general office of Stephens Grocer Company for thirty-four years. In 1999, the Harold Stephens family donated the building to the city and it is now the Chamber of Commerce headquarters.
Until construction of a highway bridge at Fulton in 1930, traffic crossed the Red River on a ferry. The routing of U.S. 67 through the town in 1936 brought tourism.
The Arkansas Supreme Court declared Hope the county seat in 1939, after numerous elections to move the courthouse from Washington to Hope. The city’s courthouse was built that same year.
In 1941, the government announced a land condemnation order, and work began on the Southwestern Proving Ground (SPG). The government built the army ordnance plant on farmland just north of town. Civilian employees were transported by bus from Hope and surrounding counties. The plant was completed and the first ammunition was tested by the following year. Work continued until the end of the war in 1945.
Cotton was the chief crop in town until the 1920s. The poultry industry was also important to the town as was the county’s hardwood forests, which provided timber for lumber companies.
John S. Gibson started a watermelon-growing contest to promote the economy in the 1920s. The Ivan and Lloyd Bright 1979 and 1985 melons were listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. The Hope Chamber of Commerce sponsored the first Watermelon Festival in 1926 and it continues to be celebrated to this day every August.
Along with former President Clinton, there are many other notable residents from Hope. Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, Clinton’s first chief of staff, and Vincent Foster Jr., deputy White House counsel were both from the town. Mike Huckabee, Arkansas’s forty-fourth governor, was born in Hope as was his wife, Janet McCain Huckabee. One of the Southwestern Proving Ground army ordnance officers, Major Paul W. Klipsch, an Indiana native, chose to stay in town after World War II. In 1948, he began the production of his now internationally famous Klipsch horns.
Nearby Historic Washington State Park is a restoration village preserving the 19th-century town of Washington, which figured prominently in Arkansas and Southwest U.S. history. Evidence suggests that Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin and others plotted Texas' revolution for independence from Mexico while staying in Hope. Washington also served as the state's Confederate capital after Little Rock was captured by Union troops during the Civil War. Hope is around 120 miles from Little Rock.
Information credit: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture