As summer begins hinting at fall, fairs and festivals will begin preparing for that oddest of contests: Who can grow the biggest pumpkin? The tradition can trace its roots back to 1857 and Henry David Thoreau.
The eccentric naturalist, author, abolitionist and tax protester who famously made his home at Walden Woods for several years also was one of the first Americans to plant seeds to grow a giant pumpkin. The seeds had come from France and were probably given to Thoreau by his friend and former natural sciences instructor, Thaddeus W. Harris.
As always, Thoreau marveled at nature’s ability to produce such miracles as giant pumpkins and scoffed at society’s inability to appreciate them while distracting itself with superficial trivialities.
In his book Wild Fruits he wrote:
In the spring of 1857 I planted six seeds sent from the Patent Office and labelled, I think, Potiron Jaune Grosse – Large Yellow Pumpkin (or Squash). Two came up and one has become a pumpkin which weighed 123 ½ pounds. The other bore four weighing together 186 ¼ pounds. Who could have believed that there were 310 pounds of Potiron Jaune Grosse in that corner of my garden!
These seeds were the bait I used to catch it, my ferrets which I sent into its burrow, my brace of terriers which unearthed it. A little mysterious hoeing and manuring was all the Abracadabra-presto-change that I used, and lo! Tre to the label, they found for me 310 pounds of Potiron Jaune Grosse there, where it never was known to be nor was before. These talisman had perchance sprung from America at first and returned to it with unabated force… and thus the corner of my garden is an inexhaustible treasure chest. Here you can dig not gold, but the value which gold merely represents. The big squash took a premium at the Middlesex Show that fall, and I understood that the man who bought it intended to sell the seeds for ten cents apiece – and were they not cheap at that? But I have more hounds of the same breed. I learn that one which I dispatched to a distant town, true to its instinct, points the large yellow pumpkin there, where no hound ever found it before, as its ancestors did here in France. Yet farmer’s sons will stare by the hour to see a juggler draw ribbons from his throat, though he tells them it is all deception, while in this case there is no deception – no Signor Blitz. Surely men love darkness rather than light.”
Thoreau’s pumpkins were hardly the largest ever grown. Growers in France and elsewhere in Europe were already crowning 200-plus pound pumpkins with the title “King Pumpkin.”
Still, Thoreau was likely one of the first to plant the French variety that produced the mammoth pumpkins in this country, according to Amy Goldman, author of The Compleat Squash. And it is no surprise given his attachment to the land.
“I have great faith in a seed,” he wrote, “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
And of the pumpkin in particular he noted in Walden that he preferred its humble simplicity to all the sophistication and wearying noise the modern world could offer:
“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.”