With the pageantry and frills of a Southern homecoming, Circleville, Ohio, hosts a four-day festival each October in honor of a fall harvest treat: pumpkins. Heralded as “the greatest free show on earth,” the Circleville Pumpkin Show, an annual event representing all things pumpkin, celebrates the town’s agricultural history while preserving and fostering community relationships.
Circleville, a town of 14,000 located just south of Columbus, still prides itself on its agricultural beginnings. That history, in fact, is the basis for the Pumpkin Show. The first show in 1903 was a small display of corn fodder and pumpkins, but it soon evolved into a celebration that attracted more farmers’ crops and curious visitors. “One hundred and three years later, it’s evolved [into] a big community event,” says Barry Keller, Circleville city councilmember and Pumpkin Show vice president. “It’s the entire community that’s involved and all the county schools and clubs and organizations, as well as the professional concessionaires. It’s kind of a mix of everything.”
Organized by Circleville Pumpkin Show, Inc., a group of 250 volunteers spread out among 23 committees, the festival — the state’s oldest and largest — fills the eight-block span of downtown Circleville, including more than 100,000 pumpkins, squash and gourds piled high on tables, canned and baked goods, flowers, fruits, vegetables and art. A traditional pumpkin weigh-in rewards the largest pumpkin of the year. This year’s winner submitted a massive pumpkin weighing 1,324 pounds, narrowly missing the show’s 1,353-pound record. The show also hosts seven parades, including the Little Miss Pumpkin parade, pet parade and the Parade of Bands.
This year, many new activities were added to the Pumpkin Show roster in celebration of the 100th show, such as the inclusion of the Ohio State University marching band in the Parade of Bands and a local artist painting a mural in the center of downtown. Former Pumpkin Show queens returned, and a group of residents baked a one-ton, 14-foot-diameter pumpkin pie. Also on display were past Pumpkin Show memorabilia, a history book detailing the events of the last 25 years of the show, all while a Black Hawk helicopter flew over the downtown area. No detail was spared as all manhole covers downtown were replaced with covers bearing the 100th Pumpkin Show logo.
In anticipation of large crowds because of the 100th celebration, show organizers coordinated with various city departments, including police, fire and street departments, and medical emergency personnel to handle the influx of visitors. Keller estimates attendance to be around 500,000, one of the event’s largest crowds. But, Keller has no complaints. “That is what [the] Pumpkin Show hopes for every year,” he says. “The town was full, people were having fun…and it worked out perfectly.”
The revenue generated from selling street space to vendors pays for city services, and any remaining funds are returned to the community, particularly for youth services. To keep attracting visitors to the rural town, Keller says he will continually work to promote a family-friendly and safe festival while also preserving the city’s appreciation of its agriculture — a goal reminiscent of Pumpkin Shows past. “We still want to have and still try to show the display of pumpkins and things that are grown in our community,” Keller says. “That’s what the history of the show’s about. That’s how it all began. It brings people back to our community.”