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.
In 2001 the festival was hobbled by lingering anxiety over the terrorist attacks, while rain again spoiled the day in 2002. So come last year, the locals were understandably keen to get back on their record-setting track and set a goal of 25,000. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that Keene faces little competition, though this year it may be seriously challenged by the Camp Sunshine children's charity, which is moving its rival stackfest from Portland, Maine -- where last year's inaugural event tallied a respectable 15,001 -- to Boston Common.)
Although the entire day can be spent without seeing all the contestants, many give it a good try. And there seems to be no end to the creativity of Keene's legion of carvers. Traditional scary and happy faces naturally predominate but are complemented by everything from the Statue of Liberty and Elvis to SpongeBob SquarePants. In addition, there are a number of truly artistic renditions, including landscapes and portraits.
Since every pumpkin is contributed by the community at large, not all the gourds are in good taste. But they all count, and those in attendance eagerly await the lighting and official tallying come nightfall.
At about 6 p.m. it's dark enough to begin the arduous task of illuminating the thousands of jack-o-lanterns. Dozens of candle-wielding volunteers make their way into the ranks and files in what amounts to synchronized arson. As soon as those pumpkins within reach are glowing, a switch is flipped and the ones on the scaffold towers -- which have been strung with yards of white Christmas lights -- spark into supernatural life.
The crowd quickly fans out among the rows to go face-to-face with the grinning gourds. For the next two hours, they'll continue to do so, reassembling at 8:30 in front of Pumpkin Central for the announcement of the official tally.
Soon after, the night sky explodes into orange -- and red, and blue, and lots of other colors as the festival ends with fireworks. By noon the next day, volunteers from more than a dozen local civic and charitable institutions will have disposed of the pumpkins, and Keene will go back to being just another charming New England town.
-- Marshall S. Berdan
Keene, N.H., is about a 12-hour drive from Washington and an hour from Manchester (N.H.) Airport, where round-trip fares from BWI on Southwest begin at $132. The Pumpkin Festival is free. Fest details: 603-358-5344, www.pumpkinfestival.com. For general information about Keene: 603-352-1303, www.keenenh.com.