2017 Punkin Chunkin is canceled

The World Championship Punkin Chunkin trophy. (Delaware State News file photo)

Thirteen days after announcing the long-term future of Punkin Chunkin is in jeopardy, the group behind the event revealed the 2017 competition is canceled.

Questions now abound about whether Delaware will ever see a large-scale “chunk” again.

“Our nonprofit, the World Punkin Chunkin Association, a 100 percent volunteer-based group, has recently come under litigation regarding the incident where Ms. Suzanne Dakessian, a Sharp Entertainment’s employee, was involved in an unfortunate accident at our 2016 event. The pending lawsuit lists our nonprofit and its officers as defendants,” the World Punkin Chunkin Association announced on its website.

“The landowners who graciously donate the use of their property each year for our non-profit endeavors are also listed as defendants. They are reluctant to host our 2017 event in light of the lawsuit.

“With less than 74 days until our event, we are left with no options. It is with our deepest regrets that we announce that 2017 Punkin Chunkin is canceled and with it, the economic impact that Delaware receives, the funds that we generate to help fund other nonprofits and the scholarships for deserving youth. Refunds will be issued within the week.

“It is unfortunate that Suzanne Dakessian was injured, and we continue to extend our best wishes to her, her family and her loved ones. We have no further comment at this time.”

Ms. Dakessian was seriously injured in November when an air cannon malfunctioned and sent metal debris flying, to the point that she was initially reported deceased by Delaware State Police.

She filed a lawsuit last week, accusing air cannon operator William Schell IV, of Millsboro, of disregarding safety concerns “in order to achieve the longest potential pumpkin launch possible.” The lawsuit also cited, among others, site landowners Dale and Jeffrey T. Wheatley, claiming they failed to provide safety netting and shields to those around the cannons.

The announcement signals what could be the end of a tradition that started in the 1980s but has faced several serious challenges in recent years.

In 2013, a man who was injured while riding an all-terrain vehicle in 2011 filed a lawsuit against Punkin Chunkin organizers and Bridgeville’s Wheatley Farm, the site that held the event from 2007 to 2013. The lawsuit was later dismissed, but the litigation resulted in the 2014 chunk being canceled.

The 2015 one was moved to the Woodlands of Dover International Speedway, but organizers struggled to find insurance coverage and so canceled the event a month before its planned date.

The chunk was held back at Wheatley Farms in 2016 but was marred by the air cannon malfunction. The incident caused the Science Channel to opt not to air a planned documentary on Punkin Chunkin and to withdraw its funding from the nonprofit behind the event.

“In life, there are uncertainties in everything we do,” World Punkin Chunkin Championship Association President Frank Payton said in a statement two weeks ago. “Punkin Chunkin is not an exception. 2013 or even last year could have been the last year. We know that the event will happen again in 2017, but without an outpouring of worldwide community financial support, we are in trouble.”

The 2017 iteration of Punkin Chunkin had been scheduled to take place from Nov. 3 to Nov. 5.

The chunk, which has been praised as a slice of Americana, benefited Delaware in several ways, according to organizers and others. The association said it contributed more than $1 million to community organizations and scholarships since 2000, and Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware tourism, said hotel occupancy in Sussex County was up 12 percent in November 2016 compared to the previous year, when there was no chunk.

Commenters on Punkin Chunkin’s Facebook page Wednesday mourned the demise of the event, with more than 700 people sharing the news within the first two hours after it was announced.

Local lore has it that the chunk — called a “redneck holiday” by one participant — stems from an argument between Sussex County friends over who could toss a pumpkin the farthest. The impromptu local contest grew through the years to include competitors who come from around the country to use air cannons, medieval contraptions and other devices to hurl pumpkins.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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