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TRAVELING IN STYLE : Side Trips : Arkansas: Capital of Capitals

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Hope, Ark., is a town with a distinction--one that has nothing to do with Bill Clinton: Hope calls itself the Watermelon Capital of the World, and every August it throws a Watermelon Festival to prove it.

Capital-ism is alive and well all over Arkansas, though not the sort espoused by Sam Walton. Like Hope, a host of the state’s other honest-to-gosh small towns have combined civic pride with economic necessity and nominated themselves as Capital of This or Capital of That, so many so that Arkansas itself seems practically to be the capital of capitals.

There may or may not be more capitals of this sort per square mile in Arkansas than in any other state--but, driving around the place, it sure does seem as if there are. On Main Street in Alma, for example, right next to a bus bench advertising the Faith Christian Center (“Your soul is our sole concern”), you’ll see a concrete statue of Popeye the Sailor Man holding a big green can of spinach aloft like a torch in his brawny right fist. The pedestal reads, “Alma, Ark., Spinach Capital of the World,” a claim justified by the fact that the local Allen Canning Co. produces an estimated 56% of all the canned spinach in the United States.

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The town of Stuttgart, on the Grand Prairie flatlands near the Mississippi, gives itself a combination-plate title: Rice and Duck Capital of the World. So much rice is grown here that even the Japanese come to Stuttgart to study rice-farming; the ducks come to eat the rice, right out of the fields, on the long migration south from Canada every autumn. (This accounts for the town’s official slogan: “The duck stops here.”)

Mix in a few other Arkansas food capitals and you’d have the makings of a pretty good meal: Warren is Pink Tomato Capital of the World. Springdale, home of Tyson Foods, modestly calls itself the Poultry Capital of Arkansas--though in fact it produces more broilers than any other town in the United States. Wiederkehr Village, home of the acclaimed Wiederkehr Winery, calls itself the Premium Wine Capital of Mid-America.

Thanks to the Anderson Bait Hatchery, little Lonoke is the Minnow Capital of the World. About 500 million tiny fish begin their lives there annually in the Anderson family’s 6,200 acres of ponds. Paragould, another hatchery town, is the world’s Goldfish Capital.

The burghers of Mt. Ida, referring to their location in the center of the Northern Hemisphere’s only silicon quartz crystal mines, have proclaimed their town Quartz Crystal Capital of the World. Malvern, home of the Acme Brick Co., is Brick Capital of the World. Leslie is the world’s Whittling Capital, and while it doesn’t host a whittling festival, there are usually a couple of guys sitting on their porches on the town’s main drag . . . whittling.

The next town likely to capitalize itself in Arkansas? Smart money’s on Emerson, a crossroads about five miles from the Louisiana border, so small that Bill Clinton has only been there once, during his campaign for Arkansas attorney general. Emerson’s claim to fame is the purple-hull pea, a sort of black-eyed pea with a purple eye. “We could be the Purple-Hull Pea Capital, if you like,” says Bill Dailey, spokesman for the town’s annual Purple-Hull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race. “But the slogan on the water tower says, ‘The Biggest Little Town in Arkansas.’ Would that conflict?”

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