Watermelon. The name itself brings the thought of sweetness, summertime, and sharing. There's nothing quite like being outdoors with an iced-down melon, friends, and clothes you don't mind getting dirty.
When I think of watermelon, my mind automatically travels to Cave City. This little burg in North Central Arkansas is tiny -- home to the Cave City Cavemen and little more. But the second weekend of August it grows to encompass hundreds who travel up for the Cave City Watermelon Festival.
The festival itself isn't all that big -- and neither are the melons, for the most part. There are a few monsters here and there -- and they're usually on display.
But what makes a Cave City watermelon better than most is the taste.
Cave City sits in an incredible growing region in Arkansas. The ground contains just the right amount of sand and soil in the appropriate ratios. This good earth creates the world's sweetest melons -- melons that are off the scale in sugar content.
The families that grow them -- the Johnson brothers, the Patterson brothers, the Penns, the Perkeys, the Carters, the Wooldridges and the Doyles -- have been doing this for generations. They have perfecting the taste down to a science.
But growing melons isn't easy. You have to rotate your crops around each year so the soil can recover. You have to provide adequate irrigation. You have to watch for frost and drought and all the things growing things need. And you have to know when the time is right to take the melon from the vine.
That time usually coincides with this upcoming weekend's festival. But there's far more to do than just knosh -- lots more. The three day event kicks off Thursday night, when Cave City Park opens for the judging of this year's entries in the watermelon contests. There are food vendors out there and an open mike on the stage.
The entertainment really gets going around 7 p.m. when Rockin' Luke Stroud hits the stage. Billy Joe French's band follows, along with drawings and other tomfoolery.
Friday night around 6 p.m., Kaleena Hutchins jams out with her harmonica. You might remember her from being on TV with the CBS Early Show -- she was one of the contestants in last year's Living Room Live competition. This 16 year old wonder knows how to make that harmonica wail (you can see her perform by clicking here).
The Cave City Cruisers Car Club Parade follows at 7 p.m., and then Elvis impersonator Radford Ellis takes the stage with his bluegrass-inspired rendition of The King's tunes. The Farris Family rounds out the evening's entertainment.
The fun Saturday starts at 6 a.m. with the annual Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast, a local tradition that starts off the day in a great way. The big parade rolls at 10 a.m. with all the beauty pageant winners and the neat cars. There's a political forum, and then more music from Evonne Baxter and Big Creek, Kaleena Hutchins again, and the Gaylon Sandefur Band.
There's an auto show on the back side of the park, where prizes are won for the amateurs and the pros alike. The scent of barbeque fills the air, as rival grillers peddle their meat.
At one pavilion, you can check out the prize winning melons. Some are big, some are little, all are potentially the best thing you've ever tasted in your life. You read through the entries, and realize that right alongside all the big name growers there are entries from Cave City kids. Here, it's all about the melon.
Along the shady paths you'll find everything from souvenir stands to t-shirts to booths from all the local businesses. Pick up a pen from the bank or a fan from the church. Enter a few drawings. Talk with people -- and you'll find that along with the people from the area there are people that have come from three or four states over. Some 15,000 people came through the Cave City Watermelon Festival in 2006, and they were all greeted with the same warm welcome.
At 4 p.m., an announcement is made from the main stage, and everyone lines up. Out by the ball diamond fence, a refrigerated truck pulls up and tables are put out. Then the growers themselves serve up hunks and chunks of ice cold watermelon -- red, yellow, or orange -- you choose what you want and take however large a piece you think you can handle.
A hush falls over the area. Seeds are spit. Juice runs. Kids run back for more -- and they can have as much as they want -- it's all free.
On Saturday, growers will likely cut up and serve more than a thousand melons. And they're all donated. No need to pay here -- it's all the watermelon you can eat, for free.
After the first round of melon, the prizes are announced -- and the prize watermelons are auctioned off. The money raised goes to Arkansas Children's Hospital. You can take one of these home -- or buy one from one of the family stands that line Highway 167.
Then the afternoon grows friendlier, as families sprawl on blankets and in lawn chairs to enjoy heavenly singing from the Gospel Echoes and the Dixie Melody Boys. They'll sing most of the evening away, pausing for the occasional drawing for prizes and cash. It's a lovely way to spend a day, even with the heat.
The best part is, the festival is free... thanks to the corporate sponsors who help out with this every year. The concerts, the parking, the car show, and the watermelon is free. Vendors do charge for things like ice cream and hamburgers, but they have to pay for what they sell, you know.
To get to the festival from Central Arkansas, take Highway 67/167 north to Bald Knob. Take the exit and head north toward Batesville. Go straight through town and head on up. Once you hit the city limits, look for the turnoff for Cave City Park on the left.
There's more information available at the Cave City Chamber of Commerce website.
And since you'll be up in the area anyway, be sure to stop by one of the family stands along the main drag. There's no sense in keeping these sweet watermelons a secret. Take one home to the family (and some to your friends, too) and help keep a good thing going.