“By God, if we can get a pumpkin up to a ton, imagine what we can do to somebody’s vegetable crop,” says Stelts, president of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, which oversees official weigh-offs. “What we are doing will be reflected on the dinner table of America.”
The path to prizewinning pumpkins can be traced, improbably, to Henry David Thoreau. In the spring of 1857, while living in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau planted six seeds from a French variety called Potiron Jaune Gros de Paris (fat yellow Paris pumpkin). He was astonished that fall when one fruit reached 123.5 pounds. “Who would have believed that there were 310 pounds of Potiron Jaune Grosse in that corner of my garden!” he wrote in Wild Fruits.
Thoreau’s hefty harvest was one of the first times a pumpkin of the Mammoth group, which includes today’s Atlantic Giants, made an appearance in North American gardens, according to seed sleuth Amy Goldman, author of The Compleat Squash. All pumpkins are squash, a loosely defined group of species in the family Cucurbitaceae, which includes melons, cucumbers and gourds. The field pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) is the product of 8,000 years of selective breeding. The stuff of Halloween jack-o’-lanterns and homemade pumpkin pies, it is derived from the same Mexican stock as zucchini and spaghetti squash. Mammoths arise from a different squash species (Cucurbita maxima), a wild plant with a softball-size fruit that originated in South America, possibly near Buenos Aires. Giant ground sloths and elephant-like gomphotheres, both of which went extinct around 12,000 years ago, probably ate the large fruits and spread the plant’s seeds. Once domesticated, Mammoth squash passed through European hands before landing in Thoreau’s garden.
Unlike Pink Bananas, Hubbards and other C. maxima varieties savored by home gardeners for their flavor, competition Mammoths are prized for their size alone. Although groundhogs and other animals may chew holes in these giants, they are mostly water, not very tasty and often inedible. They range in color from pale yellow to mottled green and are rarely found on supermarket shelves.
Though large, Thoreau’s pumpkin hardly came close to the world record for 1857. That distinction went to a grower in southwest England whose fruit weighed in at 245 pounds. Other records followed over the years, but the watershed moment came from William Warnock, a machinist and farmer from Goderich, Ontario. In 1893, he produced a 365-pounder for the Chicago World’s Fair; seven years later, in Paris, his entry weighed 400 pounds. His next world record—403 pounds at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair—would hold for more than 70 years. “For exhibition purposes, it stands without a rival,” the 1924 Rennie Seed Company catalog noted of the lineage: “Skin dark green, flesh golden yellow.”
Warnock’s record was finally shattered in 1976 by a Pennsylvania grower, but it was a Canadian named Howard Dill who ushered in modern competitive gardening. Dill spent 30 years crossing Mammoth pumpkin varieties with one another, trying to isolate the best characteristics, such as a rich orange color. Beginning in 1979 Dill grew the world’s biggest pumpkin four years in a row, and he landed in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1981 for a 493.5-pounder. Today’s growers still use seeds descended from “Dill’s Atlantic Giant,” a variety he registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plant variety protection office in 1986. While other fruits, including the field pumpkin, long gourd and watermelon, have put on some serious pounds in recent years, none has matched the Atlantic Giant, which sets a new record nearly every year.
The Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers club, which includes members from four states, was always less cutthroat about competition than other groups, says Tim Parks, who co-founded the group in 1992. “Our whole attitude is that Ohio is one for all and all for one,” says Parks, a nurseryman who runs the annual weigh-off out of his office in Canfield.
From its early days the group has led seminars and patch tours at which experienced growers have shown newcomers the ropes. In 1995, Dave Stelts began attending club meetings with a yellow legal pad and scribbling down every word, redirecting what he calls his “obsessive-compulsive” tendencies into pumpkins. Stelts built a patch with drip lines laid out in parallel rows and installed an automated control room inside a wooden shed. Five years after attending his first club meeting, he set the world record.
In 2000, instead of driving his pumpkin to a weigh-off in New York State and netting a $10,000 bonus, he decided to stay in Ohio, where the prize money was only $1,500. “Not to be able to share it with all my friends would have been a crying shame,” he says.
On a rainy July day, Werner and Parks donned their monogrammed club shirts and crisscrossed the Ohio Valley with other club members on the annual patch tour. The two had seen a lot during their time with the club, but nothing prepared them for Jerry Snyder’s property in Bessemer, Pennsylvania. Snyder, a retired schoolteacher, sometimes devoted 12 hours a day to a garden that looked like a Hollywood set: Jurassic Park meets Little Shop of Horrors. Waxy green cabbage heads the diameter of basketballs ran along the edge of a patch filled with a dozen outsize onions poking out of the soil. Competition tomatoes the size of grapefruits, still green, dangled from vines near a bloated, pale orange pumpkin. Two six-foot-long gourds hung from a red arch. “Look at those petunias on the hillside there,” Parks said, enumerating the botanical riches from under an umbrella, “and those are raspberries and blackberries down there....He’s got the rhubarb up there...castor beans....This is a labor of love.”