The Simple Joys of the South Jersey Pumpkin Show

The popular event draws up to 8,000 visitors annually.

Doreen Bennett, of Glassboro, right, snaps a selfie with granddaughter Lilianna Vazquez. Photo by Matt Stanley

When his giant pumpkin began adding about 25 pounds a day by mid-July, Mathew Metta thought he had a good shot at producing New Jersey’s largest pumpkin. By early October, his six-month vigil—feeding his pumpkin 100 gallons of water a day, keeping away bugs and deer, and cutting back any other pumpkins that might siphon off water and nutrients—was almost over. Now all he had to do was get his 5-foot-wide fruit (yes, a pumpkin is considered a fruit) to the Salem County Fairgrounds.

Last year marked Metta’s second attempt to grow a pumpkin large enough to enter in the pumpkin weigh-off, one of the most anticipated events of the South Jersey Pumpkin Show, an annual two-day celebration of the rotund squash. The year before, his largest pumpkin developed a defect; he never made it to the competition. But in 2018, his golden-orange pumpkin was flawless. On Sunday morning, he set off on a slow drive from his 12.5 acre farm in Farmingdale to Woodstown, anxious to see how he’d stack up against other giant-pumpkin growers from throughout the region.

A different kind of pumpkin competition had taken place the day before. Standing behind a 20-foot-long table crowded with pumpkin cakes, breads, cookies and desserts, nine bakers exchanged nervous chatter while two judges, sampled forkfuls of 11 baked entries.

“We look for a texture that’s pleasing, and the overall appearance—how they are decorated or displayed. And of course, we have to be able to taste the pumpkin ingredient,” explained Gladys Borgese of Vineland, a former contestant and now a judge of the pumpkin-baking contest.

Praised for their “wonderful pumpkin flavor,” the icing-coated pumpkin-spice cake balls baked by 22-year-old Autumn Warner of Carneys Point won first place in the most competitive category, best pumpkin desserts. Meanwhile, her mother, Donna Rocco, snagged a blue ribbon in the cake category for her caramel-glazed pumpkin bundt cake. It was the first cooking contest either had entered.

“My husband loves pumpkin, so every week I try to make something different,” said Rocco, 42, also of Carneys Point. “I heard about this baking contest and I decided ‘I can do this.’”

Left: Kathy Wright founded the festival in 2003 with her husband, Beau, and their two sons. Right: Blown-glass pumpkins are a South Jersey specialty. Photos by Matt Stanley

Joining Borgese at the judges’ table was the show’s organizer, Kathy Wright of Millville, who, with the help of her husband, Beau, and two sons, started the show in 2003 and has been expanding it ever since. Held on the second weekend in October, the South Jersey Pumpkin Show, which has been recognized on YouTube as one of the country’s 10-best pumpkin festivals, draws up to 8,000 visitors annually.

No sooner does one year’s pumpkin show begin than Wright, who refers to herself as Mrs. Pumpkin, is busy taking notes on how to improve the next year’s show. Calling it a “celebration,” Wright says the show provides an activity “that’s a safe, affordable gathering for the whole family.” On a more personal level, the 61-year-old Wright says she carries on each year as a way to honor her son, Scott Bailey, who helped her run the show for several years until he was killed in 2010 in an accident at age 15.

“He was a mini me,” says Wright, describing her younger son. “If he was here, he’d be buzzing around checking to make sure the prices at the food trucks weren’t too high and collecting donations for the animal shelters he supported.”

The cost to attend the show is just a parking fee of $5 per carload, with some of the proceeds funding an annual education scholarship the Wrights started in Scott’s name.

Natalie Mann, 16, of Mannington, sits atop her leopard appaloosa, Dune, while portraying the Headless Horseman at last year’s South Jersey Pumpkin Show. Photo by Matt Stanley

The Pumpkin Show combines the feel of an old-fashioned county fair with marvels like the 10-tiered pumpkin pyramid and an exhibit of 19th-century farm tools in the Heritage Museum tent. There are also family activities, including a hayride around the fairgrounds and the evening readings from Sleepy Hollow—interrupted by the arrival of a headless horseman. With more than 170 vendors, the show offers carnival rides, food trucks and artisan product booths.

Back in the baking tent, after ribbons and prize baskets were given out to all the bakers, the women made quick work of cutting up their desserts to share with attendees. Timothy Barrett, an air traffic controller at the Atlantic City Airport, took ample samples of pumpkin desserts, which he shared with his wife, Abigail, and 2-year-old daughter, Hailey Mae. The family had driven from Egg Harbor Township for the second year in a row to attend the pumpkin show.

Chris Robertson, of Deepwater, left, competes in the Pumpkin Toss. Photo by Matt Stanley

After downing the cake sample, and sipping some pumpkin-spice wine (purchased at the DiMatteo’s Winery booth), the Barretts moved on to the pumpkin-toss contest. Tim managed to lob the welded ring of orange-painted horseshoes 63 feet. Alas, that fell far short of the winning toss of 65 feet, hurled by Andrew Kustera, a Rutgers-Camden student. Kustera’s girlfriend, Emily Hilt, a Rowan College of Gloucester County graduate, from Gibbstown, set the women’s record at 54 feet. Each walked away with a check for $125; they took the top spots last year, too.

Earlier in the day, Swedesboro residents Melissa Chrisner, her husband, Doug, 5-year-old son, Will, and 2-year-old daughter, Alice, paraded around the fairgrounds dressed up as characters from Alice in Wonderland. Chrisner decorated their stroller and wagon in the same theme.

“Growing up, I liked doing crafts with my grandmother,” said Chrisner, a former beauty-pageant contestant who writes a parenting blog, beautifullybeingmom.com.

Sunday begins with the dog pageant, followed by a pumpkin pie eating contest and then a human pageant—where the junior Pumpkin Show king and queen are crowned. The giant pumpkin weigh-in begins at 11:30 am. The winner gets to claim bragging rights and collects a cash prize of $1 per pound.

Last year’s heavy rains took a serious toll on giant-pumpkin growers, and one by one, the would-be contestants dropped out. It was a great relief when Metta’s flatbed trailer pulled in, toting what turned out to be the only pumpkin to compete. Weighing in at 1,179 pounds, the pumpkin set a record for the show.

Metta, 35, will be back at the Pumpkin Show again this month with what he expects to be an even bigger pumpkin.

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