JACKSON — While New England is justly renowned for its brilliant fall foliage, the picturesque village of Jackson has, for the past 35 autumns, also been known for something else well-worth driving north for: the “Return of the Pumpkin People.”

It's a fun (and often funny) series of displays put on by businesses, non-profits and often individuals, in which pumpkin-headed figures star in all manner of inspired tableaus, often using a cinematic or "ripped from the headlines" theme.

And now the entire Mount Washington Valley has embraced the idea — some very clever "Pumpkin People" can be viewed in Conway, North Conway, Bartlett and Redstone, too.

But it all started in Jackson, where the self-contained loop of the village makes it easy for visitors to appreciate the displays on foot.

Jackson's monthlong celebration is highlighted by an “All Things Pumpkin” Festival,” Oct. 18-20, with pumpkin-carving artists working their jack o’ lantern magic and culminating with a judging ceremony and lighted displayy. Wheeled sleigh rides will be given that weekend, providing a great way to view the displays in Jackson Village.

The people behind the "Pumpkin People” say it sets Jackson and other valley towns apart from other equally beautiful foliage-centric areas. Not only do the colorful creations draw thousands of visitors every year,  they also help to build community spirit, especially since the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce opened up the annual event six years ago to include other valley communities.

From one end of the valley to the other, as longtime Pumpkin People devotees can tell you, the creativity is generally astounding. And this year it seems to have been taken to a whole new level. No matter where you look, you seem to find a new display to admire (and the clever audacity of MWV Kustomz' mechanics bending over a car's engine in Redstone seems to have the whole town abuzz),

According to Realtor Diane McGregor, part of Badger Realty of Jackson’s pumpkin team (which includes Kathleen Sullivan Head, Kevin Killourie and Sue Smith), the Pumpkin People make for "a really good energy event for the whole valley."

This year, the Badger Jackson office display (No. 15 on the Jackson chamber's official map) is of two torchlight skiers.

“It’s a lot of work,” said McGregor, “but it’s worth it to me when after it’s done, I look up from my desk and look out our office’s glass front and see people coming up and taking photographs of our display.

"Sometimes, the traffic on Jackson’s Main Street nearly gets backed up, as people stop in the middle of the street to look at the displays.," she added. "I love it.”

“It’s really fun to be part of such a fun community event,” echoed Carrie Scribner of Jackson’s Dutch Bloemen Winkel florist shop.

“So many people take the maps and stop and take the tour, stopping to take photographs. It’s a totally positive thing.” 

Scribner and her team of creative pumpkin pros this year have gone all-natural this year with a woodland gnome installation that uses grown and foraged material such as white birch bark, dried flowers and hops.

Each of the gnomes wears acorn mittens sewn by local craftsperson Kathie Bowie. And each also has a name: Juniper and Spruce.

As the handout maps available at the Jackson Area Chamberand participating businesses show, this year’s displays number over 80, extending from the Glen House Hotel/Mount Washington Auto Road on Route 16 up near Pinkham Notch (featuring an “Alice in Wonderland” theme), down through Jackson, Bartlett Village and Glen, south through Intervale and North Conway (including eight at Settlers Green) to Redstone and Conway Village.

“We get tons of people for our leaves, but the Pumpkin People brings them especially to our area,” said Jackson Area Chamber Executive Director Kathleen Flammia, who has been at the chamber for 18 years.

During that time, she has watched the annual pumpkin escapade grow.

“We print 20,000 maps each year, and the maps contain the voting ballot for People’s Choice. We used to print 10,000, but we’d always run out, so we increased it," she said.

"People come into my office and tell me that they used to go to Vermont for the foliage, but now they come here for this great event," Flammia continued. "We have people from Australia and Germany who say they have heard of the Pumpkin People and come here for it. So, along with our foliage, it’s a big draw.”

Sharing that sentiment is German native Sandra Plourde, co-owner with husband Gary of the Christmas Farm Inn and Spa in Jackson.

Sandra says she and her helpers (mom Mimi Kulhmann of Germany, Barbara Theriault and sister-in-law Judy Weber) always like to choose a topical or movie theme, and this year’s is no different: The inn's elaborate porch display is a wonderful tribute to Mary Poppins of old.

“Last year, we did ‘The Polar Express,’ and before that we did ‘The Sound of Music,’ which won first place. We placed second for “A Christmas Story’ a few years ago. We also won for ‘It’s A Wonderful Life.’ We do like to win!” laughed Sandra.

Like the others interviewed, she said that although the area would be busy anyway, it’s an event that adds good cheer.

“We could say we already have enough tourists coming to our area,” said Sandra, “but this event is so much fun, and it’s unique. Once people find out about it and see one of the displays, they want to see more.

"Add our covered bridge and the foliage, and where else would you rather be than Jackson?” she asked.

Fellow Jackson innkeeper James Gleason of the Riverwood Inn said he and co-innkeeper Susan Van Tuyl have created displays for six of the seven years they have owned the inn, located on Green Hill Road along the fairways of the Wentworth Golf Club.

“It’s almost obligatory to participate — our first year, we got a bye because we had just moved in, and last year, we got a pass because we had a snafu with our display. People last year would drive in with their maps and say: ‘Where’s your display?!?’ One gentleman was very indignant that we didn’t have one. Another lady told us she has been coming from South Carolina for 20 years to Jackson,” laughed Gleason.

This year, the Riverwood’s tableau shows “The Grinch that Stole Christmas” with his dog.

Gleason said he and other newcomers have learned from local pumpkin craftsmen on the finer aspects of the art.

“Susan Methot of the Snowflake Inn had a workshop when we first came to town, which we attended and learned such things as how to use window foam to fill up the cavity and to help preserve it, and also to glue the stick (with the pumpkin head) to it.”

The Autumn Nomad bakery this year is featuring a Disney “Frozen” theme, showing snowman Olaf.

“We’re all artists here, so we did it pretty quickly, in about four hours,” said bakery owner Jaime Melfi.

Although it’s meant for fall, she said with a winter theme, it will also have shelf life into the coming winter season. “As a small business, we try to be smart economically,” she shared.

“I love to see the kids’ reactions,” said Melfi, noting that she and co-owner Keith Wurster and staff often base their displays on Disney movies just for that reason — last year they did “Coco.”

White Mountain Puzzles this year is featuring “A Christmas Story.” Dreamed up by employee Melinda Hamilton, it shows young Ralphie in his long johns next to a table holding the infamous "leg lamp" and surrounded by wrapped gifts (one of which might hold the air rifle that his mom warns him he'll shoot his eye out with).

Up the hill, the Shannon Door Pub is celebrating the South Boston boyhood home of co-owner Tommy Mulkern.

And down across from the Covered Bridge, the Red Fox Pub and Grille’s has the Cat in the Hat, Thing 1 and Thing 2 and other Dr. Seuss characters. It was created by former teacher Jess Lambert (now the Red Fox’s bartender).

Nearby, the Debony Salon has a “James and the Giant Peach”-themed display about a boy who has to go and live with his Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. (“They’re hateful women, and he escapes to a small garden next to his home where he finds friendship,” notes salon owner Debony Diehl, who credited Krista Hayes, Jordyn Fitzpatrick and staff for this year’s design).

In Intervale, Ragged Mountain Equipment’s features a haunted campground complete with a werewolf. Bookkeeper Ryan Fall designed the set.

Chalmers Insurance in North Conway went for a Christmas theme with their own hand-built, 6-foot tall Nutcracker, using PVC piping, according to Mary Henley. “It’s very handsome!” said Henley.

The Local Grocer/Table & Tonic teamed up on a Halloween Dance Party display, showing a dancing David Bowie and other figures, promoting their early Halloween dance party set for 6-9 p.m., to be followed by a Halloween bash at neighboring McGrath’s Tavern beginning at 9 p.m.

“We’ll have a deejay, and there will be a band at McGrath’s,” said Alexandria Small, showing how the Pumpkin People can be a vehicle to promote as well as to entertain.

Eastern Inn’s take on the “Here’s Johnny” Jack Nicholson scene in “The Shining” is especially timely for Halloween season.

The Eastern Slope Inn Resort has a wedding proposal depiction, worked in partnership with the neighboring Designed Gardens Flower Studios across Main Street.

“It’s really cool,” said Ace Tarberry of the resort. “Designed Gardens used different plants ontop of the pumpkin heads to depict different hairstyles. It’s one of my favorite community events — it really draws the businesses together and gives everyone a fun way to participate.”

The New England Ski Museum has a Skimobile Pumpkin Person inside, and other figures on the lawn outside, according to volunteer Stefi Reed Hastings.

Pinkham Real Estate has a Flintstones-mobile, with Barney and Fred driving as Dino the Dinosaur stands nearby.

Along North Conway’s commercial strip on Route 16, there’s a zany display in front of the Christmas Loft and newly opened sister business, Tricks and Treats.

It’s a combination of Christmas and Halloween — as are the two jointly owned retail establishments, notes co-owner Greg Vander Veer, who runs both businesses with his partner, Stephen O’Farrell.

“It’s a ‘355th Monster Christmas Party’ theme, with Medusa as the bartender; Dracula and a witch are dancing; there’s a mummy dressed up as Santa, Frankenstein is placing the star atop the tree, and there’s a zombie flirting with Medusa at the bar,” said Vander Veer.

He added that the two businesses recently completed work on their new patio area, which offers great views, ice cream and other delights.

Sea Dog Brewing’s Heather Milburn said their display accentuates the many fine beverages one can enjoy at the local restaurant and microbrewery.

“It’s the first time we have participated. One of our servers, Betsy Lowe, said, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ so we did. We were thrilled our first time around — however, we do need some lessons, particularly how to lift up pumpkins 6 feet into the air!”

Ski and Snowboard Liquidation Center’s Jim Rockett says they’re also first-timers at their new location on Route 16 across from Dunkin Donuts.

“We’ve got a 1980s vintage skiing scarecrow out front,” said Rockett, a veteran local snowboarding pioneer. “I think it’s a great event — everyone wants to know what everybody else is doing, so it’s a good community event for the valley.”

Settlers Green has many participating stores, including the SoakingPot Infusion Spa, where a Pumpkin Person is shown soaking her feet; and in the Courtyard, where there is a theme of "Title Town" in honor of Boston's championships sports teams. Not to be missed is Home Depot’s, which — along with Jackson’s Nordic Village — is celebrating the 50th anniversary of America’s lunar landing.

“Audrianna Eldridge and I came up with the idea. It was topical,” said Assistant Manager Glenn Noble of Home Depot, “because I was born on the day they landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. And, it’s also the 35th anniversary of Pumpkin People and the 40th for Home Depot.”

Nordic Village General Manager Jack Reagan also was inspired to pay tribute to America’s milestone lunar achievement.

“It was a good time to do it,” he said. “We had some fun with it, too — we added things like Marvin the Martian, and we’ve also got some painted pumpkins as moon rocks for sale with the earth in the background.”

MWV Kustomz Used Car Sales of Redstone’s Mike Corbridge laughed when told that many motorists mistakenly mistake his pumpkin people crew for real when they drive by on Route 302.

“We used to do the Scarecrow People when it was done at Settlers Green, but this is our first year doing the Pumpkin People. We do it because I like to build things,” said Corbridge, who built the display with wife Hanna and mechanic Jasson Spear.

“The hardest thing for us was which car to choose — we ended up using a 1981 Mustang, one of my favorites.”

Ending the tour in Conway on Route 16 is Diane Reo’s State Farm Insurance, Conway Village Dental on Washington Street, and UNH Cooperative Extension’s beekeeper display on Main Street.

While many of the displays depict film characters, the Wentworth Inn of Jackson has a historical theme: "English Jack, the Hermit of Crawford Notch (1827-1912)." "I've always been fascinated by the story of English Jack," notes innkeeper/owner Ellie Koeppel, a native of Ireland who is a White Mountain history enthusiast: "Of his being orphaned in England as a young boy and going out to sea with a sea captain; of being shipwrecked and coming back to England and wanting to marry the captain's daughter once he earned money by going back out to sea, only to come back and discover she had died while he was away. He ended up here after a life of sad adventure, working on the railroad through Crawford Notch, where he settled and built his 'Ship' at the top of the notch."
 
Just another sad White Mountains tale, and one of the many stories being celebrated by this year's trove of Pumpkin People displays.

If it’s fall, it’s time for the Return of the Pumpkin People — and that includes just about all of us who love to celebrate this time of year in New England.

Be sure to vote for your People’s Choice on the map. Go to jacksonnh.com for an online map; or call (603) 383-9356.

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