New Hampshire town carves out festival of fun

Destination New England

October 08, 2006|By Michael Schuman | Michael Schuman,[Special to the Sun ]

The Renaissance replica portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, painted on light blue and dark orange backgrounds, stare longingly at one another. The originals by Piero Della Francesca hang in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. These masterful copies are in Keene, N.H., and the medium is tempera on pumpkin.

Yes, pumpkin.

Right next to the royal duo is a diorama of St. Mark's Square in Venice, Italy, fronted by more diminutive pumpkins with stems transformed into bird beaks, representing the myriad pigeons that populate the tourist-filled Italian piazza.

Not far away are pumpkins carved and painted as tributes to Elvis Presley, the Boston Red Sox and the Syracuse University basketball team, alongside likenesses of the Blues Brothers, the Rugrats and Garfield the cat.

This is the annual Keene Pumpkin Festival, and the artistry and sheer volume of orange orbs is astounding. Pumpkins decorated with tributes are sent to Keene from as far as Hawaii and California, and there is always a multitude of pumpkins carved with images of cats, bats, moons, ghosts and witches cruising on brooms.

The ornamented jack-o'-lanterns are stacked on scaffold upon scaffold, extending 40 feet high, as well as along street curbs and on storefront walls. One recent year, they numbered 28,952 -- more than the human population of Keene.

Then again, the throngs perusing pumpkins up and down Main Street more than triple the number of full-time residents of the town, students from Keene State College notwithstanding. According to Suzanne Woodward of Cheshire County Center Stage, the group that coordinates the festival, there are often as many as 70,000 people strolling the streets of downtown Keene at the busiest time, with about 100,000 pumpkin peepers wandering in town over the course of the day.

A visitor can also expect trick-or-treating at local merchants' enterprises in the afternoon after a Main Street costume parade, and standard fall fare such as hay rides and pie-eating and pumpkin seed-spitting contests, but not usually by the same contestants at the same time.

There is live music booming from bands on a trio of stages, and food vended by area nonprofit organizations. The grand pumpkin total is announced in the evening and is followed by fireworks illuminating the autumnal heavens. And since the event takes place just before Election Day, visitors can also expect to find a candidate or three pressing the flesh and contributing a pumpkin to the multitude displayed on the streets of Keene.

Keene's annual Pumpkin Festival was never meant to be the local version of the Super Bowl, New Year's Eve and Mardi Gras (a totally clean version, mind you) rolled into one. When the event debuted in 1991 it was called the Harvest Festival. It took place on a Friday night with the primary purpose of increasing shoppers' foot traffic for the sake of downtown merchants. There were 600 pumpkins on display, 400 of which were donated by the organizers. However, there was also a hint of the pumpkin art to come; an 11-year-old local lad depicted a pumpkin duo as Laurel and Hardy. That was big news at the inaugural fest, and it merited an announcement in the local newspaper.

The next year Keene entered the Guinness Book of World Records with 1,628 lighted jack-o'-lanterns -- the most ever displayed in one location. And Keene was on a mission to better its record every year.

Except for a few rainy day Pumpkin Festivals, the city has more or less bettered its efforts each year. The most recent record-setting total topped 28,000. Rival communities such as Portland, Maine, Nashua, N.H., and Boston have challenged Keene with similar events starring pumpkins on parade, but have never approached Keene's pace.

Two of the more active pumpkin participants are area residents John T. Anderson and Robin DeRaps, both adept with knife and gourd. Blues fan Anderson is known for intricate carvings of blues legends such as James Cotton, Muddy Waters and Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, whose image took Anderson six hours to capture in pumpkin flesh. Anderson began his work to help promote a local but now-defunct enterprise, the Rynborn Restaurant and Blues Club. "They thought I was nuts, that realistic artwork couldn't be done on a pumpkin. The first [pumpkin] I did was James Cotton. I brought it to the club and the owner loved it."

DeRaps, another Keene pumpkin artisan, favors whatever depictions of movie and cartoon characters his kids are into at the moment, and have included Piglet, Shrek and SpongeBob SquarePants. After 10 years of participating, DeRaps has his craft down to a science.

"I believe in every pumpkin there is a perfect jack-o'-lantern but I don't know what I'll carve until I see the pumpkin." DeRaps also prefers to chisel off the orange epidermis, carving directly into the yellowish skin below. "It makes a big difference in the dark when you light up the jack-o'-lantern. It makes [the decoration] easier to see."

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