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The quiet streets of Kenova, Wayne County will be flooded with thousands of visitors this week to see the Kenova Pumpkin House.
Almost all of the more than 3,000 pumpkins start at Jason Ekers’ farm. He began farming after quitting his public service job of 20 years to follow his dream of being a subsistence farmer. After having success producing and selling sweet corn, Ekers’ long time friend, and Kenova Pumpkin House owner, Ric Griffith asked him if he would grow him some pumpkins.
“So we started growing, and we grew 500 pumpkins one year. Then we grew 1,000. Next thing you know, we’re at 1,500. And now we’re at 3,000,” Ekers said.
Along with his farming, Ekers is the district supervisor of the Guyan Conservation District in southern West Virginia. The district advocates and oversees sustainable farming practices in the six-county region.
Ekers said growing pumpkins is complicated and labor intensive. They require special chemicals every six days during the summer and can easily rot.
“The first couple years I struggled because pumpkins are a little bit different than anything else. There’s so many diseases and so many things that you have to fight,” Ekers said. “So you have to spend a lot of money to be able to raise them.”
Photos by Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Once the pumpkins are ready, they are harvested and brought to Griffith’s house starting in early October. Over the course of the month, Griffith will start sketching cut-out-patterns on the pumpkins. He freehands some of his designs, or chooses a design from one of the 18 binders he keeps in one of his sheds that are solely dedicated to the event.
“My wife has a doctorate in psychology, so it’s kinda hard to dispute her diagnosis that I have obsessive compulsive disorder,” Griffith said.
Exactly one week out from the festival, Griffith starts to open the pumpkins up for carving. In one week, he and all the volunteers will carve the 3,000 pumpkins. He said he can’t carve any earlier because the pumpkins would go bad by Halloween. He takes them down the day after Halloween, Nov. 1.
“Every year people will call me or come by and beg me to leave the display up a couple of days more,” Griffith said. “I tell them, ‘this is the fruit fly capital of the world at the end of this thing.’ It gets rather nasty, so we have to take them down.”
The first step to putting on the massive pumpkin display is cutting the bottom out of the 3,000 pumpkins, gutting them and cleaning them. This is done two ways: The first way is with the help of hundreds of volunteer children and the handleless spoons Griffith makes for them.
“The neatest thing about this is the volunteers. We had a school here earlier from Lawrence County, Kentucky’s National Beta Club, and those kids did probably 200 pumpkins at least,” Griffith said.
The second method is with the Marthanator — a contraption made by celebrity home-maker Martha Stewart for Griffiths pumpkin house. The Marthanator is a giant sturdy metal whisk, with an extra long arm that attaches to a drill bit.
“It doesn’t take but a few minutes to do it this way, it does a really good job, but it does such a good job you have to be careful because it will eat up your pumpkin,” Ekers said.
Once the pumpkins are cleaned out, they are soaked in a bleach bath for a couple of hours.
“Those small little bits of pumpkin will mold and rot and literally infect the pumpkin from within and without. So we have a little vat here of water that we add bleach to, which we hope retards some of the mold growth,” Griffith said.
Heat speeds up the decay of the pumpkins. And with the last seven years being the hottest years on record, this means the pumpkins have a higher chance of decaying.
“So [the bleach bath] may buy us a day or two. Because these are real pumpkins. And global warming is not our friend. So if it’s too warm, they will rot very quickly,” Griffith said.
After the pumpkins are done with their bleach bath, they are sent either to the amateur shed or the artist shed.
In the amateur shed, individuals and volunteer groups use jigsaws to carve out basic designs in the pumpkins. Marshall University’s Pi Mu Epsilon math club is one of the volunteer groups that comes every year to help carve pumpkins. They help carve the pumpkins for the math or history quiz they put on each year. Bonita Lawrence, professor emeritus at Marshall University, started bringing the club to the Kenova Pumpkin House.
“One day Rick Griffith said how about we have a math puzzle, and I said let’s do it,” Lawrence said.
In the artist shed, there are tables with tools carefully laid out, as each carver works in silence, occasionally mummering to each other. Standing lights shine on the pumpkins placed carefully on pedestals.
The carvers peer through magnifying glasses to carve intricate details.
All the pumpkins have numbers and letters on top that correspond to both the person who carved them and where they will go in Griffith’s master plan. It’s a numbers game putting on an event like this. Binders full of spreadsheets, switchboards labeled in code, hundreds of tagged extension cords keep track of the status and placement of each pumpkin.
The carved pumpkins will either line the house, go on the roof, be a part of the cat choir, be a part of a historical quiz, or be a part of a rock band that plays “Country Roads.”
The pumpkins are lit with bulbs connected by nearly a mile of lighting and extension cords.
It takes a dedicated team of volunteers to piece all this together. Herbie Blake is one of the volunteers who comes and helps every year. He works all day helping wire the shows and carve the pumpkins.
“I love working with Fox and Ric, it’s a lot of fun doing this,” Blake said.
When it all comes together, the large house glows a bright orange. From a distance, it looks like a Lite Brite design with only orange and yellow pegs. Close up, it’s thousands of little pieces of art, ranging from an intricate design of David Letterman to the classic Jack O’Lantern.
“Never know what you’re going to expect and when the display is finished, it looks beautiful. Like a dream come true. Spooky and dark and beautiful,” Blake said.
Griffith said the most beautiful thing to him about the pumpkin house is all the volunteer hours that go into making it happen. He said the finished result is a symbol for the greatest thing about his home state — the people.
“As a people, we have to overcome those things. And we have to do it with love and hard work and cooperation. We have wonderful people. So I look at this silly celebration every year as something that’s sort of a symbol to me that our people come together,” Griffith said. “It is really an Appalachian thing. People see a need, and they jump in and help us and that’s wonderful.”
The Kenova Pumpkin House opens for viewing on Friday and runs until Halloween night. Admission is free. It is located in Kenova, nine miles west of Huntington.
Griffith recommends that visitors come early, because there is only off-street parking for the event this year.