Growing a Champion Pumpkin -September/October 2007
The competitive sport of giant-pumpkin growing, alive and well and thriving on Nantucket
by: Lucy Apthorp Leske
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Nantucket may have its share of golf tournaments, road races, sailing regattas and sand-castle contests, but a contest of another sort beats them all in longevity, seriousness and intent. First sanctioned 151 years ago this summer, the sport has been embraced and practiced by generations of Nantucket’s most prominent families.
Continuing today around the world, this hobby continues to grow in popularity and is open to people of all ages, incomes, backgrounds and interests. It is the competitive sport of giant-pumpkin growing, alive and well and thriving on Nantucket.
On September 8 and 9, Nantucket residents and visitors will have the opportunity to see giant-pumpkin competitors in action at the annual Island Fair, held at the Tom Nevers fairgrounds. A.T. Wilce of the Nantucket Park and Recreation Department has been helping to organize the fair for the past eight years and says that the pumpkin contest is one of the major attractions of the event. Everyone gets into the act from young to old, with between seven and 15 entries each year and weights topping 700 pounds. Even Wilce himself tried to grow a giant pumpkin last year but, in the end, admitted he had no idea how much was involved.
The truth of the matter is, only a handful of giant-pumpkin growers ever make it to the big leagues and only truly great pumpkins make it to the top of the scales. The winner is determined solely by weight. The growers admit that skill and knowledge get you to the scale but luck awards the blue ribbon.
Nantucket is but one of thousands of milieus around the world where giant-pumpkin growing has blossomed into such a popular sport that there are now websites, associations and support groups devoted to the activity. Despite the wonders of the modern Internet pumpkin community, the idea had humble beginnings. Here on Nantucket, it all started with the first county fair in 1856, sponsored by the Nantucket Agricultural Society.
As Aimee Newell wrote in her article, “No Harvest of Oil: Nantucket’s Agricultural Fairs 1856-90” in the Nantucket Historical Association’s fall 2002 magazine, the fair was established as part of an overall effort by the society to disprove “the oft-repeated assertion that (Nantucket) is a barren sand heap,” to (provide) education for island farmers, and to (foster) bonds of community so that a new source of economic prosperity and island pride could be found.”
Competitions were established and “premiums” or cash awards presented for the best hay lots, plow horses, flowers, vegetables, piecework and other crafts. Needless to say, the fair never generated the hoped-for prosperity, but it did germinate the seed of a gardening and farming community that persists to this day.
Many well-known gardeners and farmers participated in the first fair, and among the awards were prizes for excellent pumpkins.
The Transactions of the Nantucket Agricultural Society for 1856 (Hussey and Robinson, Mirror Office), reported that giant pumpkins were among the original exhibits, “…the largest, by Job Trafton weighing 72 pounds, for which we awarded him a gratuity of 50 cents.”
The following year, “...(some) of the finest specimens of the native Hard Shell pumpkin your Committee have ever seen, were on exhibition. The specimen shown by Charles C. Folger, being the handsomest in the lot, your Committee awarded him a copy of the Patent Office Report.”
Zimi Cathcart was singled out for exhibiting another fine entry, but the biggest belonged to “...Benjamin B. Gardner (who) exhibited the largest, weighing 58 pounds,” for which he was awarded “a premium of 25 cents.”
Since the beginning of agriculture, gardeners and farmers have always tried to outdo each other. Quality, taste and uniformity have all been valued traits. Size, too, but mostly everyone recognizes that to go for size means sacrificing practical and culinary value. Who wants to eat a 100-pound tomato? Pumpkins lend themselves to gargantuanism.