October 8, 2018
DEFINITION: Emitting or reflecting usually steady, suffused, or glowing light
Some pumpkins end up in a latte … or in a muffin … or maybe lip balm … or any number of all things pumpkin that cover the fall season.
But some are destined for a different kind of greatness: To be stacked up high and part of the unforgettable glow of The Great Pumpkin Mountain, a highlight event of the annual Pony Express PumpkinFest. PumpkinFest is hosted by the Pony Express National Museum as a family arts festival. With the help of committed volunteers, students and area businesses, several hundred pumpkins are carved with decorative artwork to create Pumpkin Mountain. (Did you know the creation of Pumpkin Mountain has a strong connection to Russian agricultural researchers, including some who lived on-site and helped raise the first Pumpkin Mountain crop? Read on to find out why.)
A special scaffolding holds several layers of pumpkins, and hours are spent behind the scenes preparing this much-loved and much-photographed piece of agricultural art. But the real magic happens when the evening air descends over the festival and the official Pumpkin Mountain story is told over the loudspeaker. At last, the countdown begins, and a crowd of wide-eyed festival guests helps shout out the numbers to the grand light-up moment. Each pumpkin has an electric light placed inside it, and they all glow simultaneously – a wonderful collection of creativity and quintessential fall fun. All around the hay bales surrounding Pumpkin Mountain you can hear “did you see that one?” and “how did they do that?” as festival guests take in the mix of artwork, logos and special surprise designs across row after row.
The history of Pumpkin Mountain is just as unique as the mountain itself. Dick DeShon, Board President of Pony Express National Museum, is called by many as one of the “founding fathers.” DeShon has helped every year over the past two decades, and he says it’s the reaction of the children that keeps him inspired.
“There’s nothing like lighting up the mountain and seeing the kids’ faces,” says DeShon. “It’s a real effort to get all the pumpkins ready and get all the other attractions, rides and children’s events in place but it’s so worth it.”
DeShon says Pumpkin Mountain was established officially in 1996 with inspiration from Norma Gallagher and Kathy Bahner, who were Board members at the time. Bahner asked DeShon to find “1,000 pumpkins so they could build a mountain,” to which he said “well, you don’t tell Kathy Bahner no.”
Not one to walk away from a challenge, DeShon contacted the University of Missouri Extension Service for help in learning to grow a lot of pumpkins. They connected him with growers in Russia, because pumpkins are a highly-valued food crop there and stored year-round. Soon a proposal came to DeShon from Russian growers and a professor to establish the crop, using alternative methods of weed and pest control. All DeShon needed to provide was the land and the seed.
In the summer of 1996, 150 hills were planted with pumpkin seed, including some for growing giant-sized pumpkins. With guidance and help from the Russian growers – including one professor who worked on-site as part of the proposal – the pumpkins were lovingly cared for. This included hand watering, and weed and insect removal by hand. The Saturday before the pumpkins were to be harvested, Bahner and DeShon hosted a picnic at the farm, and with the help of several area children and friends, they loaded 400 pumpkins onto wagons for transport to the Pony Express National Museum. Extra pumpkins were purchased from a local farmer, and DeShon, Bahner and other museum board members and volunteers carved the pumpkins well into the day and the night. Scaffolding was borrowed from area builders, and then later, the museum purchased and created its own. After a lighting system was constructed, the first Great Pumpkin Mountain lit up the night sky on Oct. 11, 1996.
“I actually hauled manure from my brother’s dairy farm,” says DeShon. “It took 150 bushels of manure to build the hills that first year.”
The following spring, DeShon followed guidance from the Russian project growers to move the patch to another site to establish the next Pumpkin Mountain crop.
“I followed his instructions and had a beautiful green patch in a few weeks. Just as the vines were blooming, I mowed the pasture adjacent to the patch. When I returned the next day, the green patch was gone. I was shocked to learn all the grasshoppers and bugs moved to the patch and devoured it. That’s the day I started buying pumpkins from the farmer down the road, Fleek’s Market in Wathena and another farmer at Rushville,” explains DeShon.
During the quest for pumpkins that followed, one year nearly 8,000 pounds of pumpkins were donated by area farmers Rick and Jenny Tudor. René McCrary and Staci Gray, also active with the Pony Express National Museum, located schools that volunteered to have their students help carve the pumpkins. Community volunteers like McCrary return year after year to help with all aspects of PumpkinFest, building their own personal stories that connect them to the project.
“My heart is filled with joy at hearing the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when Pumpkin Mountain is lit,” says McCrary. “I’m entering my 19th year of co-Chairing the mountain with my friend Staci Gray. My father, Richard Rochambeau, was an intricate part of the Pony Express National Museum for many years. Since his passing, I feel a closeness to him being involved with the museum. I know he would be impressed with all the community involvement that goes into building a mountain of pumpkins.”
Today, the pumpkins for Pumpkin Mountain are still grown by the Tudors, an area spanning 1.5 acres and carefully planted with seeds based on the family’s growth observations and catalog research. On the Sunday before PumpkinFest, the Tudors enlist friends and several student volunteers to load pumpkins out of the patch. “To assure having 1,000 large pumpkins, 500 pie-sized pumpkins and 1,000 mini pumpkins to donate, we make at least 13 rows of 40 hills each. It’s a good core workout making that many hills with a hoe!” says Jenny Tudor. DeShon says the community side of Pumpkin Mountain is a key to its ongoing success. “Since we started, PumpkinFest has remained a family arts festival and it really brings a lot of joy and fun to so many families. Families are looking for simple, inexpensive and enjoyable options they can afford, so attractions like Pumpkin Mountain are really special,” says DeShon. “Just like when we started, there’s also a community aspect to getting it all together, one that you wouldn’t find just anywhere. In fact, there’s no other structure of carved pumpkins like Pumpkin Mountain, anywhere, that we know of.”
In 2018, Pumpkin Mountain will have an official lighting ceremony and countdown both Friday and Saturday evenings so that more families can enjoy the experience. Pumpkin Mountain remains the main attraction of Pony Express PumpkinFest, but Pony Express National Museum director Cindy Daffron explains that there’s a generational aspect to the festival that also makes it unique.
“We see grandparents, their children and their grandchildren come back year after year to the festival,” says Daffron. “It’s a really special atmosphere with the mix of arts, performers, music and other activities available at no cost. We see people buy strollers full of pumpkins for just a dollar or two each, and it’s fun to offer the extra pumpkins grown locally in this way.”
As a side note: Across the year, the Pony Express National Museum continues to show its dedication to children and families. Smithsonian Magazine Free Museum Day offered free admission in September and welcomed more than 1,000 guests. Day Camp showcases a special theme in history each summer and has expanded to two weeks due to popular demand. Dozens of regional schools plan field trips in all seasons, and the museum’s Tuesday Night Talks see attendance of 200 or more on winter evenings. It’s all a part of the uncommon story of St. Joseph’s rich history – and part of the story that continues to draw in new generations with curiosity and inspiration.
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