Keene, New Hampshire, is the perfect model of a small town. It has a Main Street, a Central Square and plenty of quirky accolades. (The Main Street, for example, is reputed to be the widest in the world.) And as is the case with most small towns, Keene has seen good times and bad, alternately spit-shining and boarding up its pretty Victorian storefronts as people come and go. But that all changed in 1991 when Center Stage, the downtown revitalization committee, started something that would soon put Keene on the map: a pumpkin festival.
On a balmy Friday evening in October 1991, several thousand people crammed into Main Street and Central Square to view a display of 600 lit jack-o’-lanterns. Center Stage convinced Main Street’s shopkeepers to stay open after-hours for a town trick-or-treat. The night was an unmitigated success.
Now, 15 pumpkin festivals after that first successful night, I’m in New Hampshire checking into a Keene motel. It’s the night before the big day, and the town is abuzz. Everything in the area, from bed to park bench, is booked, so I’m lucky to get a room with less than a month’s notice. “It’s crazy,” says a blinking front-desk lady. The phone calls for the following year start coming in just weeks after the festival wraps up.
In 1992, the second Keene Pumpkin Festival set a Guinness World Record for the most pumpkins lit in one place at one time; the final count was 1,628. The festival then proceeded to beat its own record several times, with the last record-breaking count, in 2003, coming in at 28,952 pumpkins. That year, over 70,000 people filled downtown Keene to be a part of its now widely publicized pumpkin party. But in 2006, Keene received a sucker punch from neighbouring city Boston, Massachusetts. With a total of 30,128 gourds, the city’s pumpkin festival out-carved Keene’s glory—which the town is determined to reclaim.
“It is a competition, and it is about the pumpkins, because it’s the pumpkins that bring people out,” says Bill Harris, president of Center Stage. “We can’t lose sight of that.” But competition aside, there is also a charitable element. “What we’re trying to accomplish is a celebration of downtown Keene, and a venue for all the food and craft vendors that fundraise for local charities. The pumpkins are key.” Only non-profit organizations are permitted to set up shop on the city-owned festival grounds, and many local charities make their financial year in that one day.
The main event begins the next day at 10 a.m., when the crowds begin to fill the grounds of the festival. Three tiers of pumpkins run along Main Street all the way up to Central Square, crowned by an enormous tower of pumpkins three storeys in height. Two towers mark the western tip on Gilbo Avenue and the eastern tip on Railroad Street. Sixteen shuttle buses cover a network of local lodgings, making the rounds to drop visitors off at the south end of Main Street. The police and fire departments are on guard with specific mobilization plans. It has the potential to be a logistical nightmare but it isn’t, and Center Stage deserves a medal for its organizational dexterity.
The craziness includes a craft fair, food vendors, a children’s costume parade, face painting, pie-eating and seed-spitting contests and, of course, pumpkins—thousands upon thousands of them. Visitors and locals alike bring the pumpkins to be registered, displayed and ultimately included in the official count, and there are jack-o’-lanterns of every variety imaginable: dressed-up pumpkins, life-sized people made out of pumpkins, and pumpkins with famous faces—John Wayne, for example. There are corporate pumpkins, political pumpkins, religious pumpkins. I snap a picture of a man wearing an enormous gourd like a helmet—a real-life jack-o’-lantern.
Later in the evening, I stand with 75,000 others as the final count comes in. It turns out that there are 25,644 pumpkins on display. As remarkable as that sounds, it is actually about 5,000 short of the record; but no matter. The fireworks display is dazzling, and thousands of grins—both from the candlelit pumpkins and from those in attendance—combine with music from a band to give the cheerful evening a festive and unforgettable atmosphere.
Photo courtesy of ©Christopher Walker/iStock International.