A high-flying good time: Punkin Chunkin returns

BRIDGEVILLE — If somebody were to break down the ingredients that make Punkin Chunkin such a quirky, unique, must-see event, they’d probably find out that it’s broken up into quarters — including competition, partying, fair-style food and family fun.

It really depends on what side of the fence a person stands that separate the spectators from the competitors.

And, of course, what they’re interested in.

No matter what people were enjoying on a bright, crisp fall Saturday afternoon, it was obvious by the thousands who were gathered at Wheatley Farm that the event was back where it belonged after a two-year hiatus – Sussex County.

Delaware State News photos/Marc Clery

“It’s been a real, real, real big void,” said Harbeson’s Harry Thompson, who shoots pumpkins out of an air cannon called Iron Tiger. “They’ve been flirting with the idea of going to another state, and a lot of these guys they just can’t or don’t want to travel any distance. It’s hard to do and there’s a lot of money involved.

“I have a little produce stand and I put signs out and stuff like that saying, ‘Put Punkin Chunkin back in Delaware,’ hoping that somebody would see it and have some clout and help us get it back in here … so yeah, it’s a big void.”

Today, prized world championship Punkin Chunkin trophies will be awarded.

However, Saturday was a day that offered a little bit of something for everyone. There was a Punkin Cookin contest, kiddie rides and inflatables on the east end of the mammoth venue, live bands on the main stage, a beer garden for thirsty adults, and, of course, flying orange gourds galore from more than 100 competing teams.

One man, known only as Flaming Pumpkin Man from Baltimore, was walking around greeting people with a Jack O’Lantern head, long black robe and wielding a two-sided axe. He was certainly popular for those armed with cell phone cameras.

“I’m having a ball doing this,” he said. “I’m meeting a lot of fun people. It’s a good crowd. I did this once before but only for a couple of hours, but I had so much fun last time that I said, ‘I’ve got to do that again.’”

Middletown’s Alicia DeBonis was attending her first Punkin Chunkin. She was impressed as she watched the pumpkins fly on the video board in front of her.

“This was on my mom’s bucket list, so we just decided this year we needed to come to this,” Ms. DeBonis said. “It’s a lot larger than I thought it was going to be. It’s very hard to see the pumpkins. I’m just glad the weather held out.”

Jeff LaCourse, of Greenfield, N.H., was making his first trip to Punkin Chunkin with his air cannon called Yankee Doodle.

“I’m having a ball,” LaCourse said. “I’ve been on the team for three years and this is the first year that they’ve had the event [in Delaware] since then, so this is very exciting.
“We’ve had small local events which have been fun, but when it comes to Punkin Chunkin, Delaware is the main event.”

Josh Collins, of Howard, Pa., had it made – even without shade – as he and his friends had a makeshift living room complete with couches being pulled by a tractor from pumpkin launch to pumpkin launch.

“This is the way to travel here at Punkin Chunkin,” he said. “I don’t know who we can give credit to, we had some other guys with us here a few years ago and we said, ‘We need a better way to get along this mile-long trail here,’ and we wanted to be comfortable.

“We have a lot of people jump a ride. Heck, I don’t blame them.”

The contraptions that shoot the pumpkins high into the blue sky before they come crashing down into the field have unique names such as Chunk Norris, Old Glory II, Poverty Stricken and Mack Daddy.

“It’s fun in that you challenge yourself to do better,” said Mr. LaCourse. “The key is to keep working at it, keep fine tuning and keep finding ways to improve.”

Each one of the more than 100 different teams participating launches one competition shot each day for a total of three shots for the entire weekend. The event runs from morning coffee at 8 a.m. until the revelry of dusk.

There are competitions in Air Cannon (which shoots the farthest), Catapults, Trebuchets, and Torsions, among others.

While there is a party atmosphere surrounding the event, make no mistake, these folks are serious competitors.

“I keep saying I’m not going to do this anymore and I keep coming back,” Mr. Thompson said. “And especially after being out for a couple of years when you start getting close to the competition it really intensifies the excitement.

“Our air cannon spends a lot of time sitting in the woods covered up during the year. But about a month or two before the chunk then they start to get more excited.”

Mr. Thompson added, “It seems like the last couple of days things really pick up and that’s when we’re like, ‘OK, let’s get it done,’ which is great, because I think we do our best work when we’re under pressure.”

For those who might think the event is about being out in a field wasting pumpkins, they actually use pumpkins that are grown for competition and are hybrids.

Punkin Chunkin officials donate all of the remaining edible pumpkins to farmers each year to feed to their animals and the event has helped contribute more than $1 million to various charities since 2000.

While those are all great things, they weren’t the best thing about this weekend.

“Pumpkin Chunkin is back home in Sussex County,” said Mr. Thompson. “Right where it belongs.”

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