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The great pumpkin? It’s in Smoky Lake

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Smoky Lake is a little town with a unique attraction – huge pumpkins. For the past 20 years, the town has been home to a Great Pumpkin Weighoff. Each October, pumpkin growers from British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan visit Smoky Lake, about an hour away from Edmonton, for a chance to win prize money and trophies. During the pumpkin weigh-off, the small town of about 1,100 hosts more than 5,000 people.

“The difference with this weigh-off site is that we don’t necessarily have the largest pumpkins, but we have the largest crowd,” says Barry Wood, current chairperson of the Smoky Lake Pumpkin Growers Association. “Ours is a festival,” says Henia Martyniuk, a longtime member of the Smoky Lake Pumpkin Growers’ Association and local pumpkin grower.

“You can come out and see a bunch of country stuff. Without a lot of people, this wouldn’t happen,” said Martyniuk. “This goes county-wide. Without all these people, it wouldn’t happen. It

“It’s bizarre to see a seed the size of your thumbnail grow into something huge.”

would be a weigh-off. But because so many people have become involved, it’s a festival.”

This year’s Pumpkin Festival, held on October 4, featured a Show and Shine, a farmers market, a midway, an art show, a marketplace, a petting zoo, a garage sale and a threshing bee.

The weigh-off was initially started by a small group of Smoky Lake residents. Barry Court, a Smoky Lake resident, had a brother who competed in a pumpkin fair in Port Elgin, Ontario. In the spring of 1989, Court’s brother sent him some pumpkin seeds and told him to grow some pumpkins. Since Court lived in town, he planted his pumpkin in Larry Lafleur’s yard. The pumpkin grew to 250 pounds.

The St. Paul Journal was advertising a pumpkin growing contest, offering to pay $10 a pound for the biggest pumpkin. The Smoky Lake pumpkin was taken down to St. Paul, but the contest organizers never paid the prize money. “Two hundred pounds was considered gigantic in those days,” says Wood.

Following the arrival of the first giant pumpkin, Court decided to apply for the site designation from the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. The first weigh-off, held in 1989, attracted 25 people who brought six pumpkins. The Smoky Lake group self-titled themselves the “Pumpkin Capital of Alberta,” a title that no one else has dared dispute.

Smoky Lake is one of seven weigh-off sites in Canada. Others in Western Canada include Armstrong, British Columbia and Roland, Manitoba. Twenty-two communities in North America are designated as weigh-off sites. The pumpkin weigh-off started moving into the festival category, when the group started adding musical performances and entertainment.

IT’S A TIE

This year’s weigh-off featured 31 pumpkins – five competitors in the long gourd category, seven in the squash category, and five in the watermelon category. The Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Sun sent photographers out to capture the event, which was held in the Smoky Lake Agricultural Complex. Four thousand spectators watched the competition. Additional spectators could watch the event as it was broadcast on a television on a hall in the Agricultural Complex.

This year’s event had a unique twist. For the first time in the 20 years of the festival, two pumpkins tied with a weight of 770.5 pounds. Growers Eddy Zaychkowsky of Airdrie and Alan Makarchuk of Taber had both grown giant fruit and decided to share the prize.

The Smoky Lake pumpkin festival is entirely run by volunteers. During the actual weigh-off event, boys from the Smoky Lake High School graduating class serve as pumpkin carriers. Clad in orange jumpsuits marked “Smoky Lake pumpkin carrier,” the boys use tarps to move giant pumpkins on and off the stage. When the pumpkins reach 500 pounds, a forklift is used, but the boys still push them on and off the scale.

This year, festival organizers held a giant pumpkin drop, raising a 660-pound pumpkin into the air using a crane. The giant pumpkin was then smashed on a 1979 Oldsmobile parked outside the Smoky Lake Agricultural Complex.

NO JUST PUMPKINS

More than 100 volunteers are needed to run all the venues on festival day. “You get all these groups coming on board and each group takes care of something,” says Martyniuk. “Each group also gets their own volunteers, which is the ideal situation.” “We touch almost every group in the community,” says Carole Carpenter, a director with the Smoky Lake Pumpkin Growers Association.

This principle can be seen through the food available at the festival. The Smoky Lake agricultural society prepared Ukrainian entries for lunch in the Agricultural Complex, while Rural Crime Watch sold goodies in tents near the midway.

Free shuttle bus service cuts down on traffic and helps ferry people to the different venues at the event.

“The buses started when the festival began to attract more than local attention,” says Martyniuk. Visitors attending the festival drive from Edmonton, Bonnyville, Airdrie, Calgary, Taber, Lloydminister, Camrose and Vermilion. “There are a lot of people who have been

coming for years,” said Palechuk.

The festival started to attract attention about 10 years ago, when it received national media coverage. The group began making souvenirs, which included pumpkin vests, hats, t-shirts and a pumpkin cookbook. The Smoky Lake welcoming sign proclaims the town as the “Pumpkin capital of Alberta.”

More than 78 local volunteers have celebrated this declaration and the town’s pumpkin theme by creating a giant garden of concrete pumpkins near the downtown area.

The group knows they have created a special festival and feels fortunate to have gained so much attention. “Giant pumpkins are a special thing, a curiosity,” says Martyniuk. “It’s bizarre to see a seed the size of your thumbnail grow into something huge.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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