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New Hampshire's Great Pumpkins

Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page P07

WHAT: The 14th annual Pumpkin Festival in Keene, N.H.

WHEN: Oct. 23 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

WHY GO: Because pumpkin festivals don't come any sincerer than this.

Come October, most New England towns joyously opt for the full palette of fall colors. But historic Keene, a college and manufacturing town in the state's southwestern corner, focuses on only one -- orange. As in pumpkins. Thousands of them.

Last October, Keene earned its eighth Guinness World Record in the "simultaneously lit jack-o-lantern" category -- a whopping 28,952 -- surpassing its own record of 23,727, set in 2000. That's more than one glimmering gourd for every man, woman and child in this town of 22,563.

This year's goal: 30,000.

Fortunately you don't have to wander all over Keene to see them, as they're all congregated along a six-block stretch of town. During the day, it's pumpkins, pumpkins everywhere -- cheek-to-cheek along the grassy median of Main Street; encircling the gazebo in Central Square on wooden risers; and stacked skyward atop four giant scaffold towers, each laden with more than 1,000 carved orange heads.

By night, however, it's downright spectacular: a glistening sea of flickering faces that has turned Keene's annual Pumpkin Festival into one of New England's most popular family outings. Last year some 70,000 people came to partake in the seasonal celebrations and family-style fun, and cheer on the town in its attempt to outdo itself yet again. To occupy the intervening hours, there's also a grab bag of other holiday goodies, including a children's costume parade, mass trick-or-treating, pumpkin-pie-eating and seed-spitting contests, and two stages of live entertainment.

Keene's path to pumpkin primacy began humbly enough in 1991, when townsfolk responded to Harvest Festival planner Nancy Sporborg's plea and brought some 600 carved jack-o-lanterns to help decorate downtown. Some competitive-minded types decided to check whether there was a world record. There wasn't. But the Guinness World Records people agreed there should be, and so the next year Keene fired up 1,628 jack-o-lanterns.

That number was tripled the next year, then doubled the year after. The 1995 festival was bedeviled by persistent rains, but four more record turnouts in the next five years hiked the Halloween head count to 23,727.

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