Now that summer is officially in the rearview mirror – even with an occasional warm-weather day – the time has come for thoughts to turn to things autumnal. That could mean painting a pumpkin or constructing a scarecrow for Halloween decorating. It might be checking out a craft fair for an early start on holiday shopping. It could involve an outdoor spot with live entertainment to see and hear without slathering on high-number sunscreen. Or maybe it’s just taking in an activity that’s fun for the whole gang, even the four-legged ones.
If any of these ideas sound like something you want to do on an October weekend afternoon, then mark on your calendar or ask your smart device to remind you about the 27th Annual Blackwood Pumpkin Festival, this Sunday, October 7 (rain date October 14), from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
The popular event is sponsored by Mainstage Center for the Arts (MCA) and many others, and takes place in and around the area of MCA’s Performing Arts Academy at 27 S. Black Horse Pike in Blackwood.
“We get a huge crowd and there is so much to do,” said Ed Fiscella, founder of the event and MCA Artistic Director. “There are lots of festivals and events going on this time of year, but many are specialized – a food and wine festival, for example.”
And he’s right. Something like that has a target audience and many people do attend and enjoy it.
But the Pumpkin Festival hits all the marks.
“We have tons of food, we have crafters of all kinds, and we have lots of activities for children,” he said, “including amusement rides, pumpkin painting, pony rides and a petting zoo, just to name a few.”
“And, we keep ticket fees for the children’s event extremely low so the whole family can enjoy the event,” said Anne Marie Weaver, MCA’s Director of Special Projects.
There’s also a Halloween costume parade and contest, a talent contest, a pumpkin carving competition, a Great Cake Bake Off, a ukulele jam session and even a contest to choose the Best Decorated House. And back for its second year is the Puppy Parade. “People were walking their dogs around anyway,” he noted, “so we created a way to include them in the festivities,” with prizes, of course, for the best adorned.
Another aspect that contributes to its success is that the Blackwood Pumpkin Festival always happens on the first weekend in October. “It’s been that same day for 27 years,” Fiscella said, which matters to both the vendors and the entertainers, who can pencil it into their busy schedules way ahead of time, and to the people who come each year.
These days, the Pumpkin Festival draws more than 10,000 people to a wide swath of the Blackwood area, but he explained that the event had somewhat humble beginnings.
25-plus years ago, a Blackwood business organization wanted to do something to bring more people into the downtown area. So they held a Fall festival on a couple of blocks onto Black Horse Pike and featured pumpkins for sale, face painting, pumpkin decorating and square dancing with a caller as entertainment.
As modest as it was, the festival was quite successful. Then, the following fall, when the organizers wanted to bolster the entertainment piece, they came to the Mainstage folks for help.
“At the time, MCA was young – just three years old – and all we had was our summer program,” Fiscella explained. “But we had kids and we brought them out to perform. We were the entertainment.”
After that, MCA’s participation became a festival mainstay.
Years later, the original organizers were ready to hand off the overall management of the event, and asked MCA to take it over, suggesting it could be run as a fundraiser for the organization.
“When we started, we were mainly helping with the vendors,” said Weaver.
The festival was compact, taking place in the drug store and Academy Hall parking lots only, with 65 vendors.
“Now, we have more than 200 vendors,” she said, with obvious pride.
Fueled by their positive experiences, more than half return year after year, and spread the word widely among friends and fellow artisans. “There’s been just one year in 10 when I needed to advertise for vendors,” said Weaver.
“They are very happy with the way the festival is run,” Fiscella added, “and very committed to the event.”
In addition to attracting a larger number of vendors, the Pumpkin Festival has grown dramatically in scale and scope. Food vendors abound and there are four entertainment areas, one which will include a performance by Nashville recording artist Sherry Lynn.
“It now goes for blocks down individual streets of town,” Fiscella said. “Some people say they don’t get to all the areas because the festival is so big.
“And, in keeping with the original intent – to help revitalize and reenergize the downtown – the merchants are welcome to bring out their wares that day.”
That comment led into a discussion about the importance of the event to the town of Blackwood and to Mainstage Center for the Arts.
Both Weaver and Fiscella emphasized the strong participation and cooperation of the community and the local sponsors. “We have great support from the town,” they said.
“This is the major fundraiser for Mainstage,” Weaver said, “and the addition of sponsors has helped tremendously.”
Over the years, she commented, MCA learned to do a better job of making the connection between the event, the other participants, and themselves.
“Sponsors see the festival as a good way to promote what they do,” she said, “and so do we.
“Now we have a treasure hunt at the Mainstage studios,” she continued, “and plenty of information booths throughout the festival.
“For a long time, we did this on our own, and now look at it!” Weaver said. “Many years of hard work and commitment from the township, the community and a small crew of volunteers have turned this into an event that generations of festival-goers look forward to every year.”
Note: Since parking in downtown Blackwood fills up quickly, free parking with a free shuttle bus service to the festival is available at Highland Regional High School, 450 Erial Road, Blackwood, NJ 08012.