The Great Big Pumpkin Fight
Giant pumpkins meant necessary extra calories and were a good indication that a farm was poised to thrive.
By Kelli Huggins / Visitor Experience Coordinator
Pumpkins: good for pies, jack-o'-lanterns, seasonal decor, and metaphors for deeply-felt anxieties over rapid political and social change.
Wait, what was that last one, again? Yes, the humble pumpkin was once a controversial symbol of the increasing divide between rural and urban life in the Catskills at the end of the 1800s. As farmers strove to grow larger and larger pumpkins for bragging rights and prizes at county fairs, their counterparts in nearby towns shook their heads at the “backwardness” of this obsession.
Why did local farmers care about growing large pumpkins, anyway? Historically, Catskills farmers had subsistence farms, meaning that they largely produced what they needed to survive and often had little leftover to sell for extra spending money.
On these farms, pumpkins were an important crop. Pumpkins not only provided food for the human inhabitants of the farm, but also fed the livestock. Nineteenth century agriculture journalists wrote countless articles about how pumpkins could fatten sickly pigs and increase the quality of dairy cows’ milk. The success of livestock was directly related to the success of one’s farm and family. Giant pumpkins meant necessary extra calories and were a good indication that a farm was poised to thrive. Or, as the Delaware Republican put it in one case in 1869, “Rondout raises pumpkins large enough for a poor man and a cow to get a living in.”
Pumpkins could also net a farmer a cash premium at the local fairs. For example, the 1885 Delaware County Fair offered prizes of 37.5 and 25 cents to the best pumpkins grown by boys. While that’s not much by today’s standards, over a century ago, that was a nice amount of money to win for a crop that most likely would be grown anyway.
The importance of pumpkin crops naturally led to a bit of bragging and competition. In 1872, a Catskill farmer “boasted” that he grew a pumpkin plant with a 150-foot vine and 27 large pumpkins. The year before, F. Fuller of Bloomville grew two giant gourds, weighing in at 89 and 115 pounds. An 1898 Ulster County prized pumpkin tipped the scales at 204.5 pounds. In 1910, a Cochecton farmer had a giant pumpkin stolen by a neighbor who entered it in the Honesdale Fair.
For some people who worked outside of farms, however, the fuss over giant pumpkins was a source of derision. Someone long divorced from farming life could easily overlook the practical benefit of big pumpkins and see only a bunch of rural men attempting to one up each other with a series of spheres of orange. A newspaper editor joked that any farmer wanting his “big pumpkin lies” published should have to also submit the pumpkin “as a guarantee of good faith.” In 1874, the Catskill Recorder, one of the leading local purveyors of pumpkin snark, published a defense of horse trotting races (a subject of some moralizing hand-wringing at that time), claiming they were much better than “cheap country fairs at which big pumpkins and old patchwork quilts are the centres of attraction.”
Big pumpkins became part of the stereotype of the ignorant dirt farmer, a person left behind by the progress of time and industrialization. In New York’s 1879 state elections, a local paper encouraged farmers to vote for the Democratic ticket because a Republican-leaning newspaper had called farmer candidates “pumpkin-heads.”
Controversies and politics aside, the pumpkins stuck around. In fact, the “big” pumpkins of the late 19th century are comically small compared to modern pumpkin world champs that now weigh in at over 2,000 pounds. You could feed a lot of pigs and cows with that.
Delaware Republican, October 2, 1869
Delaware Gazette, September 16, 1885, 1
Catskill Recorder, November 29, 1878, 3
Delaware Republican, September 30, 1871
Delaware Gazette, November 2, 1910, 1
Gilboa Monitor, October 20, 1898
Delaware Republican, September 26, 1885
Catskill Recorder, September 18, 1874, 3
Delaware Republican, October 25, 1879