After a tumultuous decade, the volunteer board of Let It Shine announced Friday they’re done running the Keene Pumpkin Festival. They’re looking for fresh faces with the time and ideas to continue the event into the future.
It’s worth noting that while the group may be remembered by some for its strained relationship with the City Council over the past six years, it was previously rightly regarded as the savior of Keene’s signature event. The Keene Pumpkin Festival, which began modestly in 1991 as a downtown “harvest festival,” had grown by leaps and bounds — to the point where it drew tens of thousands of gourd gawkers and almost annually set new world records for most lit jack-o’-lanterns while, not incidentally, earning tens of thousands of dollars for area nonprofit groups. Twenty years in, though, the wear and tear — and cost — of running such a huge event became too much for Center Stage Cheshire County, which festival founder Nancy Sporborg had started in 1994. Without new management, the festival would have breathed its last in 2010.
Into that void stepped Let It Shine. It was a daunting task to take over a multi-day, world-renowned event spreading the length and width of Keene’s downtown, without a fall-off. But led by Ruth Sterling, Let It Shine did just that. In fact, within a couple of years, the festival was bigger and, arguably, better, than ever, recapturing its world record and driving local fundraising once again.
But even when Center Stage gave up control, a new dynamic was emerging that eventually became the festival’s downfall. College students and others, drawn to the city by the festive holiday atmosphere, were causing an increasing ruckus. They held parties, then made their way downtown for pumpkin smashing and other vandalism. When police secured the festival’s footprint, the parties remained on the fringes, but steadily grew. It all erupted in 2014, when thousands of partiers faced off with police on Winchester Street, a confrontation that drew national attention, and embarrassment, to the city, the college and the festival — though the latter was enjoying one of its most successful events at the time.
After the subsequent security issues led the City Council to refuse the group a license for the following year, Let It Shine took its gourds and went elsewhere, setting up a similar festival in Laconia. After a couple of years, the group dropped out of that event and restarted in Keene with a far smaller, community-minded version. Meanwhile, Laconia has continued to reap the benefits of the attention the festival brings.
And now, a pandemic has halted even what momentum the smaller festival had. Let It Shine called off this fall’s version, though it’s asked downtown businesses to try to keep to its spirit as best they can.
We applaud Let It Shine for stepping up to preserve the festival a decade ago, and for sticking with it this long. No one can blame its members, be they original or those who joined later, for being done at this point.
The question now is whether the festival itself is done.
The answer lies in what the community has an appetite to support. There has been an alternative Monadnock Pumpkin Festival held at the Cheshire Fairgrounds for the past several years. Could that be combined with a downtown element? Would it even work to have the event in both locations?
The City Council has been exceedingly cautious since the 2014 debacle not to allow Let It Shine to grow its reimagined event too much, too fast. That’s frustrated many in the community who would appreciate the economic draw — and perhaps the boost to the city’s image — that the former Keene Pumpkin Festival once provided in its heyday. At the same time, others were already wary of the size of the event before the riot and are glad to see it gone.
It does feel like there’s a definite hole in the autumn calendar without the downtown festival drawing tourists and Halloween fans. The surprising success of the recent Harry Potter birthday celebration downtown — amid the pandemic, no less — could offer insights or even a direct connection toward a forward path.
However the city proceeds, be it through yet another dedicated volunteer group or with direction from the city government, recapturing the magic the original Keene Pumpkin Festival once had will require a clear vision and much cooperation. We hope someone capable of such steps forward.