‘We’re thankful.’ Punkin’ Chunkin’ has become more than a fun fall festival in Centre County

The annual Howard Fire Company Punkin’ Chunkin’ Festival will return to Bald Eagle State Park Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The festival, now in its ninth year, draws crowds of up to 15,000 people for the one-day event that centers around “chunkin’” pumpkins far distances at high speeds using an array of team-built machinery.

George Demchak is the festival’s founder and director, as well as a volunteer member of the Howard Fire Company. He said he originally came up with the idea for the festival when he was looking for a unique fundraiser.

“We hold it at Bald Eagle State Park, which is really scenic, but I knew that there were a lot of fall festivals and we would need something that was really unique to make ours stand out from the pack,” he said. After coming across a similar festival in Delaware, he decided a pumpkin chunking event might be just the thing. The first year, the festival attracted approximately 10,000 attendees.

Now, the festival has almost tripled in size, attracting more pumpkin chunking teams from around the country to display their home-built pumpkin chunking apparatuses. This year’s festival includes 10 teams, many of which are nationally recognized in the pumpkin chunking world and title holders for long-distance pumpkin chunking.

“These (pumpkin chunking) machines range from your basic catapult to another type that’s called a trebuchet. That’s similar to a catapult, but it works with weights as opposed to just tension,” Demchak said. “Then there are torsion machines. There’s one team called the Smokin’ Llamas that have a human-powered machine. They ... pedal a bicycle to store the energy needed to release the pumpkin. They’re a record holder. I think their pumpkins can go approximately 2,000 feet.”

An event newcomer will bring an air cannon this year, capable of firing pumpkins more than 4,000 feet, or over three quarters of a mile.

Throughout the day, the teams launch eight to 10-pound pumpkins, one every three minutes all day long, with three, 30-minute safety breaks. The pumpkins are launched out into the lake at Bald Eagle State Park, where two boats retrieve the fired pumpkins.

“These pumpkins are ornamental pumpkins; they’re not an edible variety for people. These pumpkins are donated to us by a nearby Amish farm and they’re fired, they’re collected, they’re trucked back to the farm and the Amish family feeds the pumpkins to their pigs on the farm,” Demchak said.

In addition to the professional teams that appear at the event, Demchak said he and the other members of the fire company would love to see local groups get involved.

“We would really like to see high schools, carpentry groups or Boy Scout groups build launching machines. The (fire company) member who’s in charge of our launching machines is an engineer by trade, so he must evaluate these machines for safety reasons and give them the thumbs up,” Demchak said. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt, but, that said, we’d love to see local teams step up and have a whole category for locally built machines and competitions between high schools, technical institutes or Boy Scouts, anything like that.”

In addition to all the pumpkin chunking, the festival also features craft vendors, up to 100, as well as 25 food vendors. Children’s activities such as inflatables are also included and children can even purchase their own small pumpkin and try their hand at pumpkin chunking at a miniature launcher next to the shoreline. One of the event’s biggest hits is the old-fashioned pumpkin pie eating contest.

The event and parking is free, but donations are accepted, as the festival is the main fundraiser for the Howard Fire Company.

“We’re a small town (and a) small fire company,” Demchak said. “It’s our responsibility to raise the vast majority of the funds needed to operate the volunteer fire company. ... We need about $120,000 a year just to break even.”

Before the Punkin’ Chunkin’ festival, the department had fundraising events that would raise a few thousand dollars, at most, Demchak said.

“We’re thankful. The outreach from this Punkin’ Chunkin’ festival (and) the response by the people have just been tremendous. We hope to raise in the neighborhood of $20,000-$25,000 from the one-day event,” he said.

Thanks to the funds the festival raises each year, the Howard Fire Company has been able to replace outdated equipment, including its tanker and rescue truck, as well as enhance volunteer member training.

“Now, thankfully, with the funds that this festival produces for us, we don’t have to do two or three fundraising events per month and that frees up our team, so our members can go and take more training,” Demchak said. “And if we have better equipped responders with better safety equipment and better (training), that just helps everyone in the community, full circle.”

Local groups interested in getting involved in future festivals are encouraged to call Demchak at 571-8303.