Monday, August 22, 2011


   It took a forklift and a cargo net to remove the massive vegetable from Jim Beauchemin's Goffstown, New Hampshire, pumpkin patch.
   But from a padded perch at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts, the gourd placed Beauchemin on top of New England's giant pumpkin world.
   His pumpkin became the New England champion when it tipped the scales at a hefty 1,314.8 pounds.
   "The Topsfield Fair is the elite weigh-off in the country," Beauchemin said. "To win it—I call it the pinnacle of my growing years. That's why we do it, the hope of someday winning a title."

How to "Go Heavy"

   Beauchemin is part of a growing group of giant-pumpkin aficionados who thrill at watching a well-tended pumpkin swell to massive proportions.
"You plant a seed the size of your fingernail and end up with a thousand-pound {450-kilogram] pumpkin," said George Hoomis, director of the New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Association. "That's incredible."
   Pumpkins grow in the cool of the evening, so New England's climate offers prime conditions for "going heavy."
   Still, cultivating a giant takes at least an hour or two of daily tending during the five- to six-month growing season.

   Gardeners spend that time carefully pruning, prepping soil, and keeping a sharp lookout for the twin banes of gardeners: pests and diseases.
   The pumpkins begin to germinate indoors in late April. Beauchemin's champion pumpkin moved outside under protective cover in May. By mid-July it was only the size of a golf ball.
   During an explosive growth spurt in August, the pumpkins may suck up nearly 50 gallons (190 liters) of water a day. In a single ten-day period they can pack on up to 35 pounds (16 kilograms) a day.
It's thrilling but a little scary to a degree as well, because that's when they'll split open," Beauchemin explained.

   Growing a champion takes discipline during the long season.
"You're basically locked in for the summer, you're not going too far," Hoomis said. "You don't like to leave them, because a lot of things can happen."

Gotta Be the Seeds
   You don't become a heavy hitter with seeds from just any leftover jack-o'-lantern. Champion pumpkins come from championship stock. Most serious competitors use the "Dill's Atlantic Giant" seed variety, produced in Windsor, Nova Scotia, by pumpkin legend Howard Dill. 
   Dill is a former world-record holder. His 1979 champion pumpkin weighed in at 438.5 pounds (199 kilograms)—a mere dwarf by today's standards.

   "A few people started getting seeds from Howard," said Hoomis of the growers association. "It was probably like eight or ten guys to begin with.
"Now just because you've got a bunch of backyard growers who are cross-pollinating, sharing seeds and information, we're closing in on [growing a pumpkin that weighs] 1,500 pounds [680 kilograms]."

Friendly Rivals

   The world record has fallen annually in recent years. The current champ is Larry Checkon of North Cambria, Pennsylvania. He won with a 1,469-pound  gourd at the Pennsylvania Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh-Off in October.
   Competitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Germany attract thousands of growers.

   "Once you grow a thousand-pound pumpkin once or twice, you're kind of recognized as a heavy hitter," Beauchemin, the New England record holder, said.
   The increasingly crowded field includes many friendly rivals. Every spring growers from all over the world attend a Canadian seminar where people talk about pumpkins, play poker for valuable seeds, drink beer, and generally have a good time.
 "The pumpkins are great," Hoomis said, "but over the years we've met hundreds of the nicest people."
Beauchemin says that aspiring champions will find plenty of experts willing to help them get started.
   "We work together instead of against each other," he said. "Obviously you want to win at the weigh-off, but during the season we help each other. By helping each other, we all get better."


   Competitive growers aren't the only people fascinated by giant gourds. Pumpkin displays and weigh-offs are huge draws for fairgoers.
   "Fair organizers say that the two questions that they are always asked are 'Where's the bathroom?' and 'Where is the giant pumpkin?'" Hoomis said. "And not necessarily in that order."
   Shape, color, and aesthetics have no importance, which is a good thing, as most giant pumpkins lack the shape and form of their smaller relatives.
   Weight is the only quality a champion pumpkin needs to possess. Heavy rinds make heavy pumpkins, but those aren't always apparent at a glance.

 "We always leave the three biggest ones for last," said Hoomis, who runs the nationally heralded weigh-off at the Topsfield Fair.
   "Chances are that they will be the heaviest. But out of those last three the smallest one could be the heaviest."
    The last chance to see Beauchemin's champion pumpkin is drawing nigh. This Saturday it will become New England's largest jack-o'-lantern—just in time for Halloween.




   For communities like Killorglin to survive against the often overpowering commercial pressures imposed by their larger, urbanised neighbours it takes an inherent, deep seated tenacity. To say that the industrial and economic success of the town came about as a result of being ably represented politically, at the right time - is true - but only part of the overall picture. This train of thought displays an ignorance of how these market towns, strategically set down at cross-roads, not only survive against fierce odds but indeed thrive. A cursory glance at the history of any such town will reveal the growing pains and battle scars endured by generations to get us to where we are today.

   Rivers played a huge role in the establishment of trade centres and in Killorglin's case the Laune with its link and proximity to the well sheltered Castlemaine Harbour must have presented a very attractive location to the first travellers - commercial or otherwise. Political historians will recall the late Timothy Chub O'Connor extolling the virtues of his native patch and he painted a picture with the kind of infectious    enthusiasm that industrialists found impossible to ignore.

   The vibrancy of the community is marked by the ever increasing list of events sprinkled throughout the year and the world famous Puck Fair has been added to by festivals like the 'The Wild Flower of the Laune Vintage Harvest Festival' and the recently revived Head of the River Regatta. The mammoth, annual undertaking that is the pantomime is yet another of the great logistical wonders so crucial to the survival of the spirit of community involvement.


   The most widely mentioned story relating to the origin of King Puck, associates him with the English Ironside Leader Oliver Cromwell. It is related that while the "Roundheads" were pillaging the countryside around Shanara and Kilgobnet at the foot of the McGillycuddy Reeks, they routed a herd of goats grazing on the upland. The animals took flight before the raiders, and the he-goat or "Puck" broke away on his own and lost contact with the herd. While the others headed for the mountains he went

towards Cill Orglain (Killorglin) on the banks of the Laune. His arrival there in a state of semi exhaustion alerted the inhabitants of the approaching danger and they immediately set about protecting themselves and their stock.
   It is said that in recognition of the service rendered by the goat, the people decided to institute a special festival in his honour and this festival has been held ever since.
Other legends regarding the origin of "King Puck" relates to the time of Daniel O'Connell, who in 1808 was an unknown barrister. It seems that before that year, the August fair held in Killorglin had been a toll fair, but an Act of the British Parliament empowered the Viceroy or Lord Lieutenant in Dublin to make an order, at his own discretion, making it unlawful to levy tolls at cattle, horse or sheep fairs. Tolls in

Killorglin at this time were collected by the local landlord - Mr Harman Blennerhassett - who had fallen into bad graces with the authorities in Dublin Castle and as a result the Viceroy robbed him of his right to levy tolls. Blennerhassett enlisted the services of the young Daniel O'Connell, who in an effort to reverse the decision decided that goats were not covered by the document and that the landlord would be legally entitled to hold a goat fair, and levy his tolls as usual. Thus the fair was promptly advertised as taking place on August 10th, 1808, and on that day a goat was hoisted on a stage to show to all attending that the fair was indeed a goat fair - thus Blennerhassett collected his toll money and Killorglin gained a King.
   Whatever its origins, the fair has long been and continues to be the main social, economic and cultural event in the Killorglin Calendar. It is a time when old friends meet, when new friendships are forged and the cares of everyday living are put on hold.

1613 to Today

   There are many legends which suggest an origin for the Fair, many of which are wildly inventive, but there is no written record stating when the Fair started. It can however be traced back to a charter from 1603 by King James I granting legal status to the existing fair in Killorglin.
   It has been suggested that it is linked to pre-Christian celebrations of a fruitful harvest and that the male goat or "Puck" was a pagan symbol of fertility, like the pagan god Pan.

   The origins of the fair have thus been lost in the midst of antiquity, and various commissions set up over the past two hundred years have tried in vain to date them. Evidence suggests that the fair existed long before written record of everyday occurrences were kept as there is one written reference from the 17th Century in existence which grants Jenkins Conway, the local landlord at the time, the right to collect a sum for every animal brought to the August Fair. This would suggest that the Fair was something already well established in the local community.