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The Dartmouth
May 28, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Thousands of visitors, pumpkins at annual festival

It's common to associate spectacles of sheer size " the world's largest frying pan, the world's biggest ball of twine " with road trips. But the world's largest concentration of jack-o'-lanterns was, this past weekend, just an hour south of Hanover.

This small New England town of Keene, N.H. hosted its annual festival last Saturday, an event that culminates in a count of the thousands of lit jack-o'-lanterns that line the downtown area.

The Keene community started the festival in 1991 with 600 pumpkins, a meager amount in comparison with the 18,882 pumpkins registered this year.

While seemingly a quirky offshoot of a quintessential New England town, the festival started from very practical beginnings. Keene, like other small towns, was facing financial stagnation and through a stroke of ingenuity (or perhaps luck) started the now-famous pumpkin festival to pull itself out.

After the first few years of success, the town aimed to set the record for the most jack-o'-lanterns in the Guinness Book of World Records. With no other community to compete against, Keene topped its own previous record year after year. In 2000, the town pushed for "20,000 for 2,000." That year, the total reached 23,772 -- an amount that the festival has not been able to eclipse since.

But the festival is about much more than the total; it is a community event on every level. Even in its record-setting proportions the festival is kept as a very community-oriented event, with the tarp-covered booths selling food to benefit local organizations " the local firemen sell home-cut fries, boy scouts sell hot chocolate and, of course, the PTSA sells homemade pumpkin pie.

"I love how the festival brings everybody out together," former resident Stephanie Carr said, visiting with her children for the festival. "It's fun that even on a rainy day everybody came, I feel like I get to be a kid again."

The community involvement involves every age as well. In Keene, every grade school student in the local district carves a pumpkin to add to the festivities.

Community involvement does not simply end with the fireworks Saturday night. Rather, it continues into the morning when Keene must dispose of thousands of pumpkins.

The pumpkins used to go to pig farmers in the area, who took advantage of the surplus, but in recent years, fewer have shown up to claim the pumpkins. Today, volunteer groups clean up the pumpkins by the next morning, and haul them off for disposal.

So what is it about jack-o'-lanterns that attracts thousands of people from all over the country to face the chilly New England conditions?

Part of the allure lies in the ability for everyone and anyone to participate in the festival by bringing their own carved pumpkin to add to the annual count. Here lies one of the keys to the Keene pumpkin festival -- the jack-o'-lanterns do not actually come entirely from the residents of Keene, but are contributed by all of the visitors to the festival.

During the festival, in which jack-o'-lanterns sometime outnumber Keene residents, the pumpkins line the streets but the main attractions are the two giant scaffolds, each four-stories high, that bookend main street and hold hundreds of the jack-o'-lanterns.

A crowd of people always surrounds these massive structures, picking out the artsy designs or reading the spelled out advertisements. Some try to find their personal carving among the multitude.

"It's hard to find your pumpkin because there are just so many, but once you do, it's awesome to see it up there," local resident Travis Davenport said, after he located his pumpkin, conveniently adorned with his name.

Between the two scaffolds, though, is where the true magic of the festival begins. On every corner and clustered under every tree, jack-o'-lanterns grin and scowl, leaving their designs glowing in the eyes of the people passing by. The unique designs and carved faces are the most captivating aspects of the night.

Neil Jenness, long time resident said, "I've been coming to this festival since it started, and I still see new designs. Not one of these pumpkins is the same."

Although the inclement weather kept the pumpkin total from topping its record high of 23,727, the spirit of those attending the festival remained high and their smiles, like those of the glowing jack-o'-lanterns, were undiminished.