October 17-19, 2013 was Highwood's annual Pumpkinfest, drawing an estimated 125,000 visitors to the northern suburb. Nestled between Highland Park and Lake Forest, Highwood is the civilian sibling of Ft. Sheridan and the bucolic setting for some the North Shore's best festivals.
Highwood's attractions include the Evening Gourmet Farmers Market, Garlic Fest and Bloody Mary Fest.
Like Halloween itself, pumpkins (or jack-o'-lanterns) are steeped in mystery, lore and conflicting provenance. Halloween was created by a 7th Century pope to lure pagans away from the Celtic festival of the dead.
Variations of the origin of the jack-o'-lantern are present in the folklore of Norway, Sweden, England, Ireland, Wales, Germany, Italy and Spain. Whether you believe that lighting up carved out gourds celebrates a crafty Irishman named Stingy Jack or the flickering lights over ancient English peat bogs, the jack-o'-lantern seems to have been paired with the celebration of Halloween in the U.S. in the mid 1800's.
Three U.S. cities that take their pumpkins very seriously are Keene, NH, Boston, MA, and Highwood, IL. For a long time, Keene held the world record for most jack-o'-lanterns carved and lit in one place. A World Record was set in 2006 when 30,128 jack-o'-lanterns were simultaneously lit on Boston Common. Highwood almost set the record in 2011 with 30,919, but was disqualified by Guiness on a technicality.
Approaching the festival from Green Bay Road, you knew something serious was happening. Racks of shelves soaring 3 and 4 stories high were either filled with carved pumpkins or waiting for more to arrive.
Crossing the Metra tracks at Highwood and turning north onto Waukegan, the 10-year-old trick-or-treater inside me awoke. My senses were overwhelmed.
There were dogs in Halloween costumes (a doggie costume contest followed). More than 50 vendors lined the street as far as you could see. And pumpkins. Men on fork lifts moving huge boxes of pumpkins. Children carving pumpkins. Moms and dads carving pumpkins. Pumpkins everywhere.
Highwood City Council member Anna Maria Viti-Welch spotted my aimless wanderings and quickly escorted me over to Elliott Miller, not-so-secretly referred to as the "Pumpkin Nazi." It was Elliott's job to make sure carved pumpkins were placed on the racks and properly counted. Elliott was getting some last minute instructions from Eric Falberg, said to be the driving force in Highwood's quest for the title.
Next, Mayor Charlie Pecaro, who was directing the flow of pumpkins from the carving tables to the racks told me to grab some pumpkins and toss them up to the guys on scaffolds. By the time I left, the front of my jacket looked like I was puked on by The Great Pumpkin.
While I haven't gotten the official count yet, I give Highwood an A++ for effort. Besides accumulating 32,000 pumpkins, they put on a helluva festival. Money raised from Highwood festivals goes toward causes like Pediatric Cancer and funding upcoming festivals, all of which involve worthy charities.
If you're wondering what you do with 32,000 soon-to-be-rotting pumpkins, you send them up to Wisconsin in semi-trucks to feed pigs and mulch crops. Waste not, want not.
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