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Giant Pumpkins Drew Big Prizes Plus Sneers

Giant pumpkins embodied social, cultural and historical changes as huge as the prizewinner of any county fair. Annually, pumpkins of all sizes combined weigh in at a reported 1 billion pounds. But Giant Pumpkins are so much more than a business. They remain a unique source of agrarian pride and joy harvested from yearly contests, country fair exhibits, regattas and more.  But city dwellers who had left their rural roots sometimes scorned “pumpkin heads.”

Growing Giant pumpkins requires a lot of land, water, fertilizer and money. A single pumpkin can cover an estimate 1,200 square feet. Truly Giant Pumpkins can swig up to 500 gallons of water weekly. Seeds of prize-winning Giant Pumpkins have sold for up to $850 US.

Consider passing these delicious chunks of trivia from Giant Pumpkins around your Thanksgiving table.

1857–Did Henry David Thoreau Get The Pumpkin Rolling?

Some claim that deep roots for growing Giant Pumpkins in America started with Henry David Thoreau. The Naturalist and author who famously made his home at Walden Pond obtained seeds from France, most likely via Thaddeus W. Harris, his instructor in natural sciences.

In his last known manuscript Wild Fruits Thoreau writes about planting six seeds from the Patent Office that he believed were labeled ‘Potiron Jaune Grosse,’ which he translated as Large Yellow Pumpkin. One seed produced a Giant Pumpkin that weighed 123 ½ pounds. The other produced four pumpkins that weighed a combined 186 ¼ pounds,

The New England Historical Society writes:

Thoreau got a little carried away describing his pumpkins. But he made some money on the bigger pumpkin at the county fair, so perhaps he can be forgiven…In France and elsewhere in Europe were already crowning 200-plus pound pumpkins with the title “King Pumpkin. Still, Thoreau was likely one of the first to plant the French variety that produced the mammoth pumpkins in this country.” (New England Historical Society)

1876—New Zealand Farmer Also Set Records

Zaccheus William Wells of Mangorei, Taranaki had already won prizes for his various crops including apples and dried hops. But in 1876 he took his pumpkin patch to a new level.

According to author Ian Duggan of the Garden History Research Foundation, Wells became the media sensation of his day.

On May6, 1876, 

Auckland newspaper Daily Southern Cross reported the following:

“Recently a settler brought into New Plymouth a dray load of pumpkins, the largest of which weighed 213lb. It measured 7 feet 9 inches in the widest part, and was grown by Mr Z. Wells, of Mangorei, province of Taranaki”.

As word of the Giant Pumpkins spread, the Colonist Nelson wrote on May 9, 1876:

New Plymouth is rejoicing over a pumpkin, weighing two hundred and thirteen pounds. The Herald says it took two men to carry it from the dray to the scales; the girth of this mammoth gourd was twenty-seven feet nine inches in the widest part. The soil on Mr Z. Wells’ farm must be very rich to produce such monstrous vegetables.”

Also on May 9, 1876 the Waikato Times wrote”

Talk about our Waikato pumpkin growers – they may reckon themselves small potatoes, and very few in a heap after which we learn from a Taranaki contemporary… As to the champion pie melon grower of Hamilton, whose productions were erstwhile chronicled in these columns, a melon-choly smile of despair will ripple over his face when he reads of pumpkins, five of which formed a good dray load for four bullocks… the biggest of the five weighed just 213lbs to its own cheek. It took two men to ‘assist’ it out of the dray into the Courtney’s auction room.”

1885—Pumpkins Won Giant Prizes Along With Derision

For farmers in 19th century America giant pumpkins were an important crop that provided food for humans and livestock. They also garnered big prize money at local fairs and contests.

The Catskill Center writes:

“…the 1885 Delaware County Fair offered prizes of 37.5 and 25 cents to the best pumpkins grown by boys.”

But it was also a time of tremendous social upheaval with masses moving from the farms to cities. Many of those people denied their country roots and giant pumpkins were symbolic of the past they hoped to wash away like soil off their feet.

Consider Peter Coddle’s Trip To New York, one of the first mass produced box games that was all the rage at social gatherings in the late 1880s. The story involved a wide-eyed “country bumpkin” named Peter who came to New York where he was astounded by the wonders of the big city.

According to the Catskill Center:

“For some people who worked outside of farms, however, the fuss over giant pumpkins was a source of derision. Someone long divorced from farming life could easily overlook the practical benefit of big pumpkins and see only a bunch of rural men attempting to one up each other with a series of spheres of orange.”

Big pumpkins became part of the stereotype of the ignorant dirt farmer, a person left behind by the progress of time and industrialization.

In October of 1879’s state elections, The Delaware Republican “encouraged farmers to vote for the Democratic ticket because a Republican-leaning newspaper had called farmer candidates “pumpkin-heads.” 

1893–King Of The Mammoths

In 2012 Ron Wallace from Greene, Rhode Island grew a 2,009-pound pumpkin making him the first person in the world to weigh in over a ton. This easily beat a gut-busting record set with a 469-pound entrant in the 1893 world’s Columbian Exposition.

Cindy Ott, History Professor and author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon writes:

“The pumpkin was featured at the fair because it was an awesome natural specimen, but more important, because it embodied the agrarian stories that many Americans like to tell about themselves…By propagating giant pumpkins, generations of growers like Ron Wallace have not only perpetuate a botanical species but also kept a sense of American agrarian identity alive.”

Late 1800s–Some Giant Produce Was Fake

Tall-tale postcards reflected local American humor with super-sized produce that dwarfed Paul Bunyan and mammoth creatures of all types, including Giant Pumpkins. These tongue-in-cheek images flourished primarily in the Midwest from the early 1900s.

In part, they emerged with advances in photography, printing, and economical postage. Business people soon made “ginormous fortunes” from the amusing tall-tale postcards that spread tall tales while garnering great PR for small town USA.

Let’s Not Forget That Native Americans Cultivated Pumpkins And Squash First

Long before people competed for bragging rights for their Giant Pumpkins, Native Americans were cultivating the orange orbs.

Historians believe that pumpkins originated in North America at least 9000 years ago. Pumpkin seeds found in Mexico are dated between 7000-5550 B.C.. Squash and pumpkins were a staple among Native Americans who grew them along with beans and maize, using a planting technique known as the Three Sisters Method. This allowed crops to sustain each other, with corn serving as a trellis on which the beans climbed to access sunlight while protecting stalks from wind. In turn, pumpkins sheltered the corn’s shallow roots and discouraged weed growth.

Pumpkins were an important part of Native American diets long before the Pilgrims landed. Indians baked, boiled, roasted and dried the pulp. They also used pumpkin and squash blossoms in soups and wove dried strips of pumpkin into mats. When settlers arrived in America, they saw the pumpkins grown by the Native Americans and pumpkin soon became an important part of their diets.

The pumpkin was already a staple in the American diet long before the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts in 1621.

The only eyewitness account of that festivity mentions two foods – venison and wildfowl. It doesn’t indicate what else was eaten or how the food was prepared or served. But Plimoth.org writes that pumpkin was very likely on the harvest table in some form.

According to Plimoth.org:

“Pumpkins and other squashes, called pompion by the English, were native to New England. Certain species had been introduced to Europe by 1500, where they had gained widespread acceptance. However, New Plymouth probably lacked the butter and wheat flour in substantial enough quantities to make a pie crust. The earliest written recipes for pumpkin pie came after 1621, and those treated pumpkins more like apples, slicing them and sometimes frying the slices.” (Plimoth.org)

May your Giant Pumpkins be fruitful and multiply.

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