Pumpkins gathered at Veteran’s Square ready to be loaded onto the Tower for Saturday’s Pumpkin Fest. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
LACONIA — When Richard and Lisa Carey of Vestal, New York, had young children, they wanted to have a little more fun with their pumpkin carving than the usual.
"Our children inspired us when they were little," said Lisa. "We realized you can do a lot more than a traditional triangular face." They started experimenting with pumpkin carving about 25 years ago, trying to create a likeness of their favorite cartoon characters. Within a few years, they were carving a dozen or more at their house, and each year had a theme, such as Winnie the Pooh, Disney characters, or the cast from The Rugrats. Soon, so many people were stopping by their house each fall that they partnered with their municipality to host the pumpkin display in a local park. At their peak, the Careys, with the help of a few other volunteers, were carving about 300 pumpkins each year, and people would come by the thousands to see them.
But it just grew too big for one family to handle. There was the cost of buying the pumpkins, plus all the time involved in washing, gutting, carving, washing again, and then drying each pumpkin so it won't mold, for 300 jack-o'-lanterns.
"It got out of control, where we couldn't manage it anymore," said Richard, so they stopped holding the public events. Yet, Richard, a self-employed auto mechanic, and Lisa, a nurse, couldn't shake the pumpkin-carving bug. And, after 25 years, they had gotten really good at it. So they loaded up their pickup truck with two huge pumpkins – and a couple of dozen normal-sized squashes – and pointed the truck toward Laconia.
This is the kind of story that Karmen Gifford, president of the Greater Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, has been hearing for months now. This is the second year that the Pumpkin Festival has been held in Laconia, and is the first year that the Chamber is organizing the event. She has spent the last year planning the event, with guidance from the nonprofit Let It Shine, which ran the festival for many years in Keene and for its first year in Laconia. What Gifford has found this year is that the festival has been adopted by so many different people and groups, who have each decided to have their own role to play. That role can be as small as an individual who will bring his or her own carved pumpkin to be added to the others on display – if the total exceeds 30,581, it will set a Guinness World Record – or as big as many other critical roles, which have all been adopted by businesses or individuals, from both near and far.
"We had a lot of pieces hanging out there, they all came together last week," a smiling Gifford said on Wednesday. "But we couldn't have done it without the community."
After long being an event associated with Keene, Laconia was excited to host the one-day festival last year. Still, there were questions about whether the event would resonate with people outside of the city lines. And it did, as about 35,000 people came to see the the festival's first run in Laconia. That kind of turnout only further excited the local hosts.
"I think, last year, nobody knew what to expect. This year, we're making it our own," said Gifford.
The list of people who have stepped forward to play a role in the festival is too long to count. Laconia schools have committed to have each student carve a pumpkin, and businesses and individuals have offered to supply enough pumpkins for the students. Volunteers are staffing the welcome centers, the Bank of New Hampshire has invited nonprofit organizations to run children's games in its parking lot, electrician Jim Hutchins has designed a plan to light all of the pumpkins placed in the 34-foot-tall tower, and the city's Department of Public Works has done yeoman's work to get the festival up and running. There's still time for volunteers to join the effort, too, she said, inviting people to enlist at one of the welcome centers, to help light or count pumpkins, or to lend a hand in the "Pumpkin Dump Derby" cleanup effort that begins at 8:45 p.m.
Many businesses have signed up to have a presence during the festival. There will be many vendors downtown, offering food and crafts. The Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad, which was very popular last year, will offer 45-minute excursions that will leave from the downtown train station every hour, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Two local restaurants, T-Bones and 405 Pub & Grill, each asked to operate a Biergarten.
Those who come to the Pumpkin Festival this year will find more vendors, more food and more activities, said Gifford, and it's all thanks to the many different people who have joined the effort. For the Careys, it is encouraging to see so many people come together for the festival. That's why they decided to offer one of their giant, carved pumpkins to be raffled off at the festival. Each ticket costs $1, and every dollar raised will be donated to the festival.
"If we can help, we want to help," said Lisa.
A Pumpkin Patch window mural painted by Jayla Austin at the Boys and Girls Club in preparation for Saturday’s Pumpkin Fest. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)