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Great pumpkins, and small ones, light up Keene in quest for a record

Email|Print| Text size + By Susan Ware
Globe Correspondent / October 20, 2004

KEENE, N.H. -- There are few opportunities in life for the average mortal to be part of breaking a world record. The Keene Pumpkin Festival gives you a chance at bragging rights.

On Saturday, Keene will attempt to break its own record in the Guinness World Records by having more than 28,952 lighted jack-o'-lanterns in one place at one time.

Last year, organizers estimate, more than 70,000 people came to this rural college town 90 miles northwest of Boston for the one-day event. Adults and costumed children brought carved pumpkins, ate local fare from street vendors, danced under the bright hues of fall leaves, and would have made the harvest gods proud with their celebration of the end of the growing season.

What started in 1991 as a local harvest festival with 600 carved pumpkins has sprouted into an event fit for the druids. In 1992, a new category was added to the Guinness World Records, and although other cities, such as Portland, Maine, and Nashua, have made runs at the record, Keene continually has the largest pumpkin patch.

If you think this is just an overblown harvest fair, think again. This weekend, visitors who make the trek will see four 40-foot towers holding thousands of carved pumpkins that serve as a backdrop for the festival. Organizers use more than 1.5 miles of scaffolding to create the shelving on Main Street.

While the highlight of the festival is the official announcement of the tally at 8:30 p.m., when everyone stands under the dark sky with fingers crossed amid the glowing jack-o'-lanterns, hoping to break last year's record, there are many things to do all day.

This is a participatory event, so bring a carved pumpkin and a 3-inch votive candle and register at one of the six official sign-in stations. For those who come empty-handed, carving stations will be set up; proceeds will go to a local charity. In addition to standard harvest festival events, such as hayrides, a costume parade, pie-eating contests, and a pumpkin-seed spitting event, festival organizers have worked to provide something for everyone.

This year, test your navigational skills in a cornfield maze and visit a haunted house or the Museum of Pumpkin Oddities. After that, witness a robotics team maul pumpkins, and have your picture taken in Cinderella's carriage, which, true to the tale, is a pumpkin.

Throughout the day, dance troupes, a cappella groups, and jazz, bluegrass, and rock bands perform on three stages across Main Street.

While Keene, home to Keene State College, is rich in eateries, street vendors, many selling to benefit local charities, will be out in force offering everything from hamburgers and hot dogs to pumpkin soup, apple crisp, and hot apple cider.

While the Jack in the Irish myth ("Jack be nimble, Jack be quick . . .") was wanted by neither heaven nor hell and roamed the earth for eternity with a lighted gourd looking for a place to rest, your jack-o'-lantern has a place to rest in Keene, along with thousands of other orbs.

Susan Ware is a freelance writer in New Hampshire.

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