The Pumpkin Festival started out as a gift to a community from its downtown merchants. It became a gift to the world.
The event started as a Harvest Festival in 1991, when downtown merchants, through a newly formed Downtown Association, paid for and hosted the first festival. Their aim was to bring new life and vitality to a downtown that seemed to be on the verge of collapse with stores closing, little foot traffic and even less excitement.
As the community center’s heart got healthier, fame sprouted. The invitation to simply carve a pumpkin to help break a World Record appealed to many. And, when people arrived in downtown Keene and saw the Main Street filled with shimmering pumpkins smiling as they sat cheek-to-cheek on scaffolding towers, milk crates and ladders—well, they were blown away. They had to come back the next year and bring Aunt Eleanor and Uncle John.
The Pumpkin Festival has been broadcasting to the world what can happen when people come together for no other purpose than making magic happen. The Festival, unlike most other Festivals, has no ulterior motives. It is not about making money, amassing funds for charity, selling stuff, or trying to get votes. The heart of the Pumpkin Festival lies in the pumpkins. The meaning of the Pumpkin Festival lies in everyone’s participation. The beauty of the Pumpkin Festival lies in what is created together. What better gift could there be than to show the world what a community can do?
As the Festival grew it became too big for the merchants to own by themselves. It belonged to the whole community, and required everyone’s efforts to make it happen. Center Stage, a nonprofit organization, was born in 1994. The organization’s purpose was to bring the community together in celebration throughout the year. For 20 years, Center Stage and its dedicated volunteers hosted the world each October and succeeded in winning eight world records for the most lit jack-o’-lanterns in one place. The festival was not cancelled in 2001 after the September 11 attacks. Extensive security measures were put in place and upgraded annually at a high cost to event management. Each year security costs grew, with a large portion of the resources going to the neighborhoods where college-age people reside, until finally Center Stage decided that if costs and conduct couldn’t be controlled, the event could not continue.
After Pfest 2010, the festival was saved from demise by a new group of volunteers led by Ruth Sterling, owner of an ad agency involved in the festival during its early years. Sterling, attorney John Hayes, insurance professional Lisa Edwards, hotel manager Alex Bates, and Keene State College professor Mike Haines founded “Let it Shine, Inc.” and earned nonprofit status on October 31, 2011 (Halloween). A competing festival in Highwood, IL, began in 2011 and in 2012 and was featured with Keene in HGTV’s “Pumpkin Wars” hosted by the Property Brothers. The Keene festival won the contest with 29,381 jack-o’-lanterns and earned that amount in dollars from Discover Card. The prize money was earmarked for educational nonprofits; area schools, youth programs and other educational programs received the funds.
In 2013, Keene committed to bringing home the world record lost to Boston in 2006. And on a perfect evening in October 2013, thanks to a colossal gift of pumpkins to the community from C&S Wholesale Grocers, a new world record was achieved: 30,581 lit jack-o’-lanterns.
The shine was back but darkness threatened still in the college neighborhoods where neighbors and police found the influx of rowdy “ragers” untenable. With no guaranteed security plan for the neighborhoods, the festival could not continue… or could it?
Charlie St. Clair of Laconia Motorcycle Week heard about the extinction of this New England treasure and paved the way for the 25th annual festival to take place in Laconia, “where every day is amazing,” as the city’s slogan promises. So residents of the heart of New Hampshire, the lake city of Laconia, had their turn to shine. The New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival has taken place in Laconia since 2015, with the spectacular tower and new features that make it unique to the Lakes Region. In the meantime in 2016, Nancy Sporborg published a book entitled, “Pumpkin Festival 25 years,” the profits of which she pledged to future pumpkin festivals. Her gifts, in the many thousands of dollars, have helped fuel the rekindling of Keene Pumpkin Festival in the HeART of Downtown Keene.