Belmont County’s Premier Event
Barnesville Pumpkin Festival
By Cathryn Stanley
Vernon Burkhart, a resident of Barnesville, Ohio, started a small fair in the fall of 1964. It was held in the Assumption Catholic Church basement and was known as the Barnesville Fall Fair. Burkhart’s inspiration for the event came from a trip through Tennessee with his wife in 1963 where they passed through a small town having a fall festival.
The Barnesville three-day fair attracted many people “offering the opportunity to see and enjoy the plentiful things that are grown on the beautiful acres of southeastern Ohio,” including large gourds, many being pumpkins. The event, now a festival, became so popular that it had to be moved outside, still in the community on West Main Street in 1968.
A board of directors was formed, and Burkhart served as the festival’s first president. Many of the festival’s contests and events were developed.
The festival’s first queen was crowned in 1968, the same year that the Barnesville Mother’s Club added the “Little Miss and Mr. Pumpkin” contest, and the most popular “King Pumpkin” contest. The antique window display contest also began in 1968 and carnival rides were added in 1969.
Community involvement has been an integral part of the festival from the very beginning. At that first affair, Barnesville High Vo-Ag students served as judges as they do to this day, setting up early wide-spread community involvement in the festival.
Early financial support came from local businesses and the invaluable support of the village government, which still exist.
In 1970, the name was changed to the Ohio Pumpkin Festival. That year also saw the festival’s first street parade and the introduction of pumpkin ice cream, manufactured locally by Damsel’s. This same year saw the first “King Pumpkin” display on Main Street. Expansions included a Banjo and Fiddle Contest, the Big Pumpkin Auction (1976), Pumpkin Run (1977), and Pet Show (1980) among others.
By ’80s the Wednesday night weighing of the giant pumpkins gained popularity and Saturday parade day crowds were estimated at 50,000. Still growing in popularity, the festival expanded its boundaries to the B & O Depot and Watt Center areas.
During its history, the festival has drawn its fair share of celebrities and brought national attention to Barnesville. Miss America 1971, Ohio’s Laurie Lee Schafer was a special guest in 1974. The 150-member Ohio University Bobcat Marching Band livened up the 1974 parade.
The Ohio State University Football Coach Woody Hays cut the ribbon in 1980 as did Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Harry Goldstein four years later. Also, in the ’80s, the late Ed Johnson, host of the popular Agri-Country television show, broadcast from Barnesville and served as weigh master.
In 1999, the festival was featured on the NBC Today Show, The Discovery Channel and named as one of the top 100 Events in the United States by the American Bus Association. In 2002, the name was changed to the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival. Attendance is now typically over 100,000 people for the four-day event.
The highlight of the festival is the “King Pumpkin” weigh-in, in which $1.00 per pound is paid to the grower of the heaviest pumpkin. The Barnesville Pumpkin Festival still boasts the Ohio state record winning pumpkin, grown in 2017 by natives Todd and Donna Skinner and tipping the scale at 2,150 pounds, a far cry from the winning entry of then 12-year-old Thomas Rockwell in 1964, when the contest began.
The Skinner’s pumpkin helped them earn the 2017 Worldwide Great Pumpkin Commonwealth Grower of the Year title. The “King Pumpkin” is auctioned off on Saturday night, and the highest bidder takes custody of the pumpkin for 10 days, usually displaying it at their business.
After that, the pumpkin is returned to the festival organizers, gutted, and its seeds are dried and packaged to be sold at the next year’s festival.
To date, other festival activities include concessions, carnival rides, a queen pageant, pumpkin baby, little Miss and Mr. and mascot contests, a classic and antique car show, live entertainment on two stages, pumpkin pie baking and eating contests, pumpkin fudge contest, pumpkin rolling contest, horticulture displays, farm machinery display, tall tales, hog-calling, tobacco-spitting contest, beard and mustache contest, a pet contest, talent contest, banjo, fiddle and mandolin contest, a 5 K race, and a giant pumpkin parade.
Marking its 57th year, the 2020 event is scheduled to start with the pumpkin weigh-ins on Wednesday September 23, and the festival to follow Thursday, September 24 through Sunday, September 27. Fifty committees, including hundreds of people, work on the planning and implementation.
Also involved in the festival are Barnesville civic organizations and clubs, who use the event as major annual fund-raisers.
For more information about the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival visit barnesvillepumpkinfestival.com. Or, plan your visit to the festival or more events and attractions in Belmont County at visitbelmontcounty.com. Request a free visitor guide by calling 740-695-4359 or e-mailing email@example.com
Barnesville Pumpkin Festival