Highwood Pumpkin Fest grabs HGTV attention
Public Works Director Jeff Ponsi shows how quickly he can drill pumpkins. Standing nearby are (from left) publicist Ilyse Strongin Bombicino, Alderman Eric Falberg and HGTV producer Danny Downing. | Mark Ukena~For Sun-Times Media
WHAT: The Great Highwood Pumpkin Festival
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 18, through Saturday, Oct. 20
WHERE: Downtown Highwood
SPECIAL NOTE: HGTV’s “Pumpkin Wars,” featuring Highwood, airs 7 p.m. Oct. 31
OTHER INFORMATION: highwoodpumpkinfest.com
Updated: October 11, 2012 3:12PM
HIGHWOOD — For a town that covers less than one square mile, residents here do things big.
Visiting Highwood recently to begin filming the HGTV special “Pumpkin Wars” to air Halloween night, producer Danny Downing was amazed at the gigantic lengths this tiny town of 5,500 residents will go to celebrate.
With a goal of breaking three world records at this year’s Great Highwood Pumpkin Festival – the most daunting being lighting 32,000 jack-o-lanterns at once – HGTV hooked up with Downing to cover this unique undertaking.
“It’s such a massive, massive thing for what is truly a small community,” said Downing, with Knoxville-based Red Arrow Industries production company. “I think from what I’m seeing, they don’t like to do anything small here.”
With co-host of the HGTV show Property Brothers Jonathan Scott hosting the TV event in Highwood — and brother Drew Scott in Keene, N.H., where residents will compete for the same record — the world will see what can happen when everyone pitches in, he said.
“Every single person is elbow deep in pumpkin guts,” Downing said. “Everyone here chips in.”
The main event in Highwood will take place 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, when volunteers will start to light pumpkins lined up in layers on scaffolding stretched along Highwood and Waukegan avenues.
“On Oct. 20th, I’ll be here with one crew in Highwood,” Downing said. “On that same day, we’re going to coordinate the Guinness Book event. There will be a host in each city trying to help that town win.”
But first, he said, he and his crew just had to know how the town could pull this off.
“Where do you get 32,000 pumpkins? And how do you then take 32,000 pumpkins and turn them into jack-o-lanterns?” said Downing, who was in town recently to start filming.
Pearce Brothers Family Farm in Walworth, Wis., planted an additional acre to supply Highwood with all 32,000 pumpkins, and Downing planned another trip to catch the harvesting and delivery of the pumpkins on film. Countless volunteers, including local school students, contribute by carving pumpkins to donate to the cause.
The interest by HGTV comes on the heels of talk show host Rosie O’Donnell covering last year’s fest and the town’s world record efforts coming up as a Jeopardy question.
It was Highwood resident Matt Feddermann, however, covered in pumpkin guts, who sparked interest in turning the town’s efforts into a television special. With his own recording studio, Matt Feddermann Music, he was doing a voice over with a client when he walked into the studio covered with pumpkin. Downing was on the other end wanting to know why people were laughing.
Feddermann jokingly suggested doing a pumpkin show and a few months later got an email from producers wanting to know more, he said. So he sent them video of the 2010 festival, when the town lit 26,000 pumpkins, and they were “blown away,” he said. In 201l, Highwood broke the world record with 30,919 pumpkins, but didn’t do everything correctly according to Guinness Book officials, Feddermann said.
“We didn’t do things exactly how Guinness wanted us to,” he said of last year’s effort.
Every pumpkin has to be numbered and put into a log for the world record, he said, adding Guinness officials will be at this year’s festival.
“This year, we’re pretty confident we’ll get it,” Feddermann said.
It takes 45 minutes to light that many jack-o-lanterns, with 30 to 40 people helping, each assigned to a quadrant, he said.
“They turn out all the street lights, and the entire city is lit by the glowing jack-o-lanterns,” he said.
This year, engineers designed two bridges made of scaffolding to cross over the streets — with jack-o-lanterns lining them as well, he said.
Highwood will attempt two other world records at this year’s fest — one for the most people carving pumpkins simultaneously, and another for the most pumpkin pies lined up in a row. Host Jonathan Scott will take part in making pumpkin pies at the Bent Fork Bakery, where they will turn out between 600 and 1,000 pies. And “the largest carving party” will draw more than 1,000 people to carve pumpkins simultaneously, Feddermann said.
Coordinator of music for the festival, Feddermann said that’s just his professional contribution.
“As a resident, it goes way beyond that,” he said. “As a volunteer, wherever they need me, I’m there.”
Highwood Alderman Eric Falberg knew the town could come together in a big way. When he and his wife owned a bed and breakfast in New Hampshire, they went to the pumpkin festival in Keene.
“I said ‘We can do this bigger and better,’” Falberg said.
Festival-goers can buy wristbands to carve as many pumpkins as they want throughout the three-day event to help break the record, and can take the pumpkins home when it’s over, Falberg said.
Last year, the event drew about 65,000 people, with a larger crowd expected this year. “We want people to come early and carve,” he said.