Light it up

NH Pumpkin Festival carving out a tower of jack-o'-lanters

Special to the Union Leader
October 10. 2018 1:15PM

For weeks now people have been registering their carved pumpkins for placement on a 34-foot tower at the New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival in Laconia. People also can create jack-o’-lanterns at a carving station at this weekend’s celebration. 
If you go...
WHAT: New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival

WHERE: Downtown Laconia

WHEN: 4 to 8 p.m. Friday and noon to 8 p.m. Saturday

COST: Free admission; $10 to carve a pumpkin


For perspective, the tower at this year’s New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival is just 3 feet shorter than Fenway Park’s Green Monster.

The 34-foot-high tower will be full to the brim with 1,000 brightly lit jack-o’-lanterns of every size, shape and color, some with unusual messages carved into them, said Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve had wedding proposals that have been written in the pumpkins,” she said.

While the answers to those queries are unknown, it’s safe to say most have a memorable time carving the imperfectly round winter squash at the annual street festival.

Upward of 40,000 visitors are expected at this year celebration from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday and noon to 8 p.m. Saturday in Downtown Laconia.

“If we have weather like last year, we certainly hope to surpass that,” Gifford said.

People put their imaginations to work in carving pumpkins, whether in advance or at the carving station on site.

“People have been registering for weeks to put their pumpkins up (on the tower),” she said. “Many businesses have (had) special carving events this week with the public or with their employees.”

There also will be a carving station in Veterans Square, where pumpkins will be available for purchase and carving.

“We also have volunteers that help to gut the pumpkins so they are ready to carve. The artist just needs to create their jack-o’-lantern,” Gifford said. “We have the tools, and we will clean up the mess.”

To qualify as a jack-o’-lantern, a carved pumpkin “ it has to illuminate. That’s the key,” Gifford said of using real candles or electric, battery-powered votives. Once the masterpieces are complete, they are put on the tower Friday night.

“Those are all lit Saturday night sometime after 5, when it starts to get dark. If we light it at 5 p.m., we want it to still be twinkling by 8,” she said. “It’s about celebrating fall. It celebrates spreading creativity and artistry.”

The New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival has had a long and storied history, beginning in Keene in 1991 and leading to several world records for the most lit jack-o’-lanterns in one place. But after riotous outbursts on the periphery of the festival and Keene State College led to more than 100 arrests, Keene City Council rejected a permit for the festival’s return in 2015. Laconia took up the mantle that year, turning to longtime Pumpkin Festival organizer Ruth Sterling, who would later pass on the reins to Gifford.

“From the moment I met (Gifford), I believed she had the energy and commitment to take on the project,” Sterlin said via email.

“We worked closely (with the town), trying to replicate the look and feel of the original fest by placing the 34-foot tower in a majestic place, (and) by concentrating schoolchildren’s pumpkins in the beautiful park with the bandstand near the Belknap Mill,” Sterling said.

“After that first year, she said, ‘Take it and run with it.’ So that’s our goal — to keep letting it shine, the way she started it,” Gifford said, referring to Let It Shine, the group of organizers that helmed the fest from 2011 to 2015.

“I think the tower is dazzling and breathtaking, even after all these years,” Sterling said.

And all the hard work and planning has paid off.

“We’ve seen, definitely, a growth in an engagement, in people wanting to participate. There are more vendors this year; there are more games this year. There’s a couple of new attractions this year,” Gifford said.

New this year is the Jumpin Jack Car show on Saturday from noon to 3.

“It’s an opportunity to feature antique cars, classic cars, jacked-up cars,” says Gifford.

Laconia’s entire downtown will be shut off to traffic while festival-goers check out the pumpkins, amusement rides and vendors. Local businesses, nonprofits and civic groups have teamed up with festival organizers to sponsor parts of the event.

“We have a whole street that’s actually all games and activities. In past years they’ve actually done curling with brooms and little pumpkins,” says Gifford.

Children’s activities will include a fun house, bungee jump, a giant slide, a tractor pull and pancake breakfast. Horse-drawn hayrides will loop through the festival.

Pumpkin bowling, in which sugar pumpkins are bowled down the lane between bales of hay, will offer people a chance to connect the fall fruit with real bowling pins.

Live music from local and Boston-based acts will be hosted on three stages, while 10K, 5K run/walks, and a rubber duck derby on the Winnipesaukee River will take place Saturday. There will also be a beer garden for adults, a pumpkin cook-off and a chance to get a bird’s-eye view of the scene.

“We have a really cool Pumpkin Eye tower. It’s a staircase that goes up 20 feet into the air. You can take photographs and look down on Main Street, down towards the tower,” Gifford said.

The second annual Zombie Walk, featuring ghoulish strollers, will shuffle off as darkness sets in Friday night.

“They choreograph their movements to (Michael Jackson’s) iconic ‘Thriller’ and everybody joins in and follows them,” she said.

Hundreds turned up in 2017, surpassing expectations, Gifford said.

“Last year it was phenomenal. I didn’t know what to expect, and it was so exciting to watch. Families showed up — little kids all dressed up in zombie garb — way more than I anticipated. Their faces were all full of makeup or blood was dripping,” Gifford said.

Once the fest wraps up, the messy job of removing 1,000 large squash begins with the Pumpkin Dump Derby at 8:45 p.m.

“We give donations to nonprofit organizations that help us with the cleanup. So as soon as the festival is over, the hockey teams, the lacrosse teams, the snowmobile club, Girl Scouts ... they can use wheelbarrows, they can do whatever they want. They throw all the pumpkins into the big dumpsters. When they’re finished with it, we bring in dozens of pizzas and they have a pizza party in the middle of the street,” she said.

And still, the job is not done.

“(We’re) trying to be conscious of our environment. Some of our local pig farmers have taken the pumpkins in the past — some of our local cow farmers. They can use them or turn them into a compost pile,” says Gifford.

Another, more creative way to dispose of the pumpkins is to chuck, or launch, them out of a cannon, just to see how far they can go. The Extreme Chunkin event Oct. 20 and 21 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon will spit out pumpkins at about 700 miles per hour.

“At the Speedway, they launch them for distance and competitions. We want ours to stay intact and light up and be jack-o’-lanterns, but the following weekend (will be) all about smashing them,” Gifford said.

One of those cannons will be on display at the Pumpkin Festival, “(but) we’re not going to aim it at the tower,” Gifford joked.

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