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Gourds go flying as Keene pumpkin festival comes to a close

KEENE — Organizers of the Keene Pumpkin Festival had high hopes for the Pumpkin Dump Derby on Saturday night to safeguard the future of the festival for years to come, but the contest was stopped short by full Dumpsters and left competitors feeling frustrated.

The contest was created to both speed up the cleanup of Main Street and curb the mayhem and smashing of pumpkins that inevitably takes place at the close of the festival. However, the event ended about 10 minutes into the competition because the Dumpsters provided to the derby teams were full and spilling over with the orange gourds.

The situation left the team members — who were told that if they could clear their section of jack-o-lanterns the fastest would win $1,000 for their charity — frustrated as they waited by their assigned dumpsters for instructions from officials.

Standing around a tarp full of jack-o-lanterns with nowhere to dump them, members of a team made up of Keene State College fraternity brothers were disappointed.

&#';We really wanted that money for our charity,&#'; said Lenny Silverman, who said Tau Kappa Epsilon was competing to win the $1,000 for St. Jude's Children's Hospital.

&#';Let the record show we would have won,&#'; he added.

Nearby, another team made up of members of the Keene State College Equity and Social Justice Society were hoping to win the grand prize of $1,000 for Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation. Team members stood around a shopping cart full of jack-o-lanterns that would not fit in their full Dumpster.

&#';It was totally fun and I'm out of breath,&#'; said Celeste Thibault.

However, they said the Derby didn't seem well-planned as there were not enough dumpsters. Another team member suggested the competition should take place later in the night to avoid the mess caused by festivalgoers who threw pumpkins into the Dumpsters.

After a while, a derby official came by to tell the teams, &#';All the teams are on pause because all the Dumpsters are full up.&#';

After the teams waited around a little while longer the official came back and asked the team members to help throw pumpkins into a dumpster located at the other end of Main Street.

The teams went where they were asked to go, but were disappointed they had been unable to complete their assigned sections.

Because no winner could be declared, the teams would be compensated somehow, the official said.

The new event was planned to clean the streets of the tens of thousands of jack-o-lanterns left after an attempt to break a world record at the 22nd annual Keene Pumpkin Festival that took place in downtown Keene Saturday.

In its attempt to break that record of 30,919, set by Highwood, Ill., the festival gathered 29,381 jack-o-lanterns on Central Square and along Main Street.

In years past, large numbers of young people have thrown and smashed pumpkins on Main Street and its sidewalks.

The idea of the Derby was to take that youthful energy that in years past resulted in a messy cleanup and create a sport, said event manager Ruth Sterling, who dreamed up the Derby.

The Derby allowed for 12 teams of up to 25 players.

Each team that cleaned its assigned area would win $100 for its cause; the team with the fastest time would win $1,000 for their cause.

The teams were assigned a section by lottery.

Many of the teams were made up of Keene State College groups, but some were made up of other area community groups.

Though the typically cash-strapped festival was funding the prizes, Sterling said if the streets were cleaned up faster than in years past it would end up saving the festival money.

Cleanup by volunteers usually takes until midnight or 1 a.m. and is often messy because of the many smashed pumpkins.

The cost of keeping the street closed to traffic and the security and police details is about $7,000 an hour after the festival ends, Sterling said.

The high cost of producing the festival has threatened to keep it from coming back for several years.

Before the derby started Saturday night, Sterling gave directions to several teams waiting for the signal to start.

She also gave warnings to festivalgoers who attempted to pick up or smash pumpkins before the Derby started.

Once the Derby started, though, many non-team members joined in throwing pumpkins into Dumpsters not realizing only team members were supposed to do the cleanup.

Many children, unchecked by their parents, also started picking up and throwing pumpkins. Many who appeared to be about 10 years old couldn't throw high enough to reach the top of the Dumpsters, so the pumpkins smashed against the sides, then smashed onto the street.

Organizers attempted to stop the children as well as clear them from the area for their safety as many pumpkins were flying through the air.

One police officer said he believes the derby did prevent much of the mayhem of years past, but said it was more dangerous because people were throwing pumpkins from long distances to reach the Dumpsters as opposed to just throwing and smashing the pumpkins onto the street. The officer said he dealt with several people that night who had been hit by flying pumpkins and had suffered minor injuries as a result.

mpierce@newstote.com


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