October 7, 2013

The humble Farmer: Buzz Pinkham’s Pumpkinfest in Damariscotta is one of Maine’s best-kept secrets

What do you do with a 1,000-pound pumpkin? Try strapping on an outboard and motoring around the harbor.

If you have kept up with the social commentary in your newspaper over the past 50 years, you know that every October, Linus van Pelt camps out in the pumpkin patch and waits for the Great Pumpkin to rise up and float through the sky.

Those of us who have attended Buzz Pinkham’s Pumpkinfest in Damariscotta bear witness that the Great Pumpkin does not rise up from anywhere.

Rather, all 900 pounds of it drop rather abruptly from the sky and flatten an automobile and anything else unlucky enough to be under it. In the process, enough pumpkin shards are scattered about to feed every needy child in Maine.

The Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta is one of Maine’s best-kept secrets, so don’t be surprised if this is the first time you’ve heard of it. It was only by chance that I happened to see a young man on cable television speaking of his ability to raise gigantic pumpkins.

There was something intriguing about having a 2,000-pound pumpkin growing on my front lawn. And because I saw nothing on the program that told me who this young man was or where he was or why he was telling us how to raise a pumpkin that could feed Knox County, I Googled until I tracked him down at Buzz Pinkham’s greenhouse in Damariscotta.

Here’s the story behind giant pumpkin science. By cleverly manipulating pistils and pollen (in a manner that couldn’t even be discussed on the mess deck of a Navy ship in 1955), Buzz and his buddy Bill developed plants capable of growing pumpkins that weigh in at something between 300 and 1,500 pounds.

Buzz says that last May, he “gave out 600 plants to volunteer growers.” Unfortunately, it was a cold, wet June, and he figures he’ll be happy to get back 50 or 60 for the weigh-in this year.

“We need 80 to 100 pumpkins for the show,” he added. “... Need pumpkins for making boats and pumpkins for squashing cars.”

More should be said about squashing cars. Last October, I saw Buzz climb on a huge tractor and haul in the cars to be squashed. It was somewhat disconcerting to see cars scheduled for squashing that sported better tires and fewer miles than the truck I drove home.

To know what car squashing means, you really have to stand among Maine people on a frosty October morning and actually experience the shock waves generated by their screams as a half-ton piece of fruit crushes a car. But for now, imagine if you will, a car in the middle of a field. On the side of the field, see a crane capable of lifting a thousand-pound pumpkin 200 feet in the air.

The crane positions the pumpkin exactly over the car and then lifts it, up, up, up. The pumpkin has been filled with water and has started to leak. Hundreds of faces are turned upward with eager expectation. A person, selected earlier by lottery, pulls the trip line, then yanks the trip line.

Fifteen people line up and strain on the trip line. The trip line is stuck. The pumpkin is slowly brought back to the ground so the trip line can be freed up.

Yes, they also hollow out pumpkins, make boats out of them and paddle about in these round canoes in ice-cold sea water. Buzz himself, and other daring sports, attach outboard motors to pumpkin boats and skitter around marker buoys as 10,000 people lining the harbor shore roar with approbation.

Last year, as the only new face in the crowd, I wondered how 10,000 of my neighbors already knew about Maine’s answer to NASCAR.

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