DAMARISCOTTA — A local businessowner and longtime event volunteer once said that it takes a village to grow a pumpkin. Now in its 13th year, the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta is showing how the collaboration between communities, businesses, artists and volunteers can lead to a yearly Columbus Day weekend tradition in the Midcoast.

What started with three men deciding to ride around the Damariscotta River in a pumpkin boat has turned into a 10-day event featuring a parade, pumpkin boat regatta, arts and crafts and fun and games for the whole family.

Artist Nancy McKinnon is readying for her ninth year as a volunteer painting and decorating a giant pumpkin. The theme of her pumpkin is for the amusement of kids, so she sometimes uses Disney characters for inspiration.

“I seek ideas that will put a smile on the faces of all children,” McKinnon said. “The children help make the festival the magical event that it is.”

She uses wood cut-outs to attach to her pumpkin art to give the pumpkin more dimension and to make it more animated. She said it takes her between six and eight hours to complete the pumpkin art, including design, preparing the wood appendages and time to paint.

McKinnon said she doesn’t take the painting and decorating of the pumpkin too seriously; she said she just wants to have fun.

“I don’t have children or grandchildren of my own, so Pumpkinfest connects me with the community that way, and it’s just really fun,” she said.

This year, McKinnon is planning on painting a whale on her pumpkin, and she will have an idea for what the final design will look like before she takes the first brushstroke sometime next week.

The annual event brings thousands to the Damariscotta and Newcastle region. And it has room to grow.

“(Pumpkinfest) is an innovative program that promotes horticultural education to gardeners of all ages regarding the specific agricultural science required to grow Atlantic Giant Pumpkins,” said a statement provided to the media ahead of this year’s event. Pumpkinfest organizers expect between 10,000 and 15,000 people to attend this year’s festival.

Each spring, 50 third graders from Great Salt Bay Community School in Damariscotta spend time filling 600 pots with soil for seeds, and more than 400 volunteer growers grow the plants, which were distributed on May 20 during Seedling Sunday, the unofficial start to Pumpkinfest.

The giant pumpkins will be deployed around downtown Damariscotta beginning around 3:45 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 4. The following day, artists will be working all day carving their pumpkins, while pumpkinboat building will take place at Pinkman’s Plantation.

On Saturday, Oct. 6, downtown Damariscotta will be filled with artisans and food vendors ahead of the official Giant Pumpkin Parade, which kicks off at 2:15 p.m. Sunday is the day for the 7th annual Pumpkin Derby, pumpkin catapult and slingshot, and the Pumpkinboat Regatta begins at noon on Monday, Oct. 8.

“For many of the volunteers who donate untold amounts of time to planning and execution of these events, the best reward is on Saturday, when Main Street in Newcastle and Damariscotta is lined with people 6-deep,” said festival co-founder Buzz Pinkham. “Everyone is excited and anticipating the great hometown parade. It’s quite a show.”

The festival is a boon to the twin villages’ economy. Todd Maurer, one of the owners of King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta, said many Midcoast communities have already closed for the season, so having this event in Damariscotta each year is an added bonus.

“The annual festival gives the community an extra 10 days of large crowds of visiting tourists, and it’s a boost to the local economy,” he said.

This year, one of the more exciting changes, according to organizers, is the Weatherman’s Heat during the regatta. Teams of meteorologists from the state’s TV network affiliates will race each other in custom pumpkinboats.

“After last year’s dousing, we figured having weather experts should help,” said Mal Gormley, one of the event organizers.

Successes and challenges
Pinkham said one of the rewarding aspects of the event is the coming together of hundreds of volunteers to help bring the community such a fun-for-all festival. Despite the large crowds and overall rave reviews the festival receives each year, it isn’t without its challenges.

Co-founder Bill Clark said one of the biggest concerns each year is whether the festival will have enough pumpkins, something he said they don’t know about until about four days before the event begins.

“Without our area pumpkin growers, there would be no giant pumpkins for artists to create pumpkin art and for thousands of people to enjoy the displays,” Clark said. Growing a giant pumpkin is no easy task. The entire process requires much effort to nurture and grow the giant pumpkins, protect them and successfully transport them to grower weigh-offs and to their eventual location along a street in Damariscotta or Newcastle to be viewed (by visitors).”

Gormley said Pumpkinfest continues to grow with more attendees, more music, more food, more entertainment, more artists and bigger pumpkins. All of this growth and the large-scale operation that is required to run the festival means the few weeks before and each day during the festival is, as Gormley said, wild.

“Everybody frets & runs around like their hair’s on fire, and it can be like herding cats,” Gormley said. “The challenge is keeping it safe, educational and fun.”

Just three guys and a pumpkin
The first Pumpkinfest event was held on Columbus Day weekend in 2005 when three local men came up with the idea to take a large pumpkin, remove the pulp, attach a trolling motor and take a ride on the Damariscotta River in a pumpkin boat. Word of their plan spread to some area residents and about 12 people came to watch the pumpkin boat’s inaugural run.

“We determined that it would be good to place large pumpkins along Main Street in front of the store and get local artists to carve, paint and decorate them,” Pinkham said.

Following the third iteration, organizers began to recruit more volunteers, committee members and chairpersons, ideas for additional events and sponsors. Pinkham said it gave the community a jolt.

“Local area pumpkin growers had a new purpose for growing larger pumpkins,” Pinkham said. “They could sell the big pumpkins to the Pumpkinfest organization so that artists could create awesome pumpkin art.”

It’s been 13 years since three local men decided to put attach a motor to a pumpkin. Gormley said the event combines all the fun of a county fair in a unique way. He said the Twin Villages are pretty quiet most of the year, like most Maine towns, but every once in a while, something like this comes along.

“It’s become our signature annual event, and the enthusiasm’s just infectious,” Gormley said. “(Putting on) Pumpkinfest is just so (darn) silly. Adults shouldn’t behave like this, but who’s going to stop us?”

For more information, visit mainepumpkinfest.com.

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