Howard tradition: How Punkin’ Chunkin’ keeps ‘our fire company running’

When Punkin’ Chunkin’ founder George Demchak approached the Howard Volunteer Fire Company with his idea for the fall festival eight years ago, all but two members “chuckled” at him.

“The night before the very first festival, I was speaking with some of the long-term members at the fire company and I said, ‘Ya know, how do you think this is gonna play out tomorrow? Do you think people are going to come?’“ Demchak said. “And the one fellow who has been in the fire company a long time — over 40 years — he said, ‘George, if you get 300 people on your first year that’ll be a good turnout.”

As it turned out, the inaugural event brought in about 30 times that prediction and has since brought in at least 75,000 visitors to Bald Eagle State Park.

“I feel blessed,” Demchak said. “It really has been a good team effort.”

102018_lnf+hay ride
Eve Fida, 18 months, laughs as she is held by her mother, Katherine Fida, of Lewistown, as they ride on the hay ride during the 8th annual Punkin’ Chunkin’ hosted by Howard Fire Department at Bald Eagle State Park on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. Linsey Fagan For the Centre Daily Times

Demchak said he was vacationing in Delaware while in the midst of planning a festival as a fundraiser for the fire company when he learned about a national Punkin’ Chunkin’ competition that piqued his interest and prompted him to bring the festival to central Pennsylvania.

“I realized that because we have just a lot of fall festivals in the area that, you know, if you have something unique to draw peoples’ interest, that would really capture an audience,” Demchak said. “And that’s helped make the festival successful.”

The only time the festival faced any adversity was when the festival was canceled due to major flooding in 2016. Fire company president Mark Ott said he was “a little concerned” about the park’s condition this year as well after the area had the wettest summer on record.

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His concerns — like the rain — eventually dissipated and about 11,000 people entered the park on Saturday to watch 10-pound pumpkins fly up to 1,600 feet and explode into Sayers Lake.

“To me, it’s just the feeling of being on a good old rickety wooden roller coaster and throwing your hands up in the air and smiling from ear to ear,” Demchak said.

Each year, the festival generates about $25,000, which is about one-fourth of the company’s yearly budget.

“It basically is heating our building, maintenance, training and equipment for our vehicles,” Ott said. “Basically keeping our fire company running.”

The fire company and park are in the eighth year of a 10-year agreement, but Ott said both sides hope to continue the tradition beyond the next two years.

“The details going on in an event like this are unbelievable. I would’ve never guessed how hard it is to run something like this and make sure everything is done,” Ott said. “But just the fact that the firefighters don’t have to spend as much time on fundraising the rest of year is less pressure, gives us more time for training and more time to stay home with our families.”