Bald Eagle State Park - 149 Main Park Rd Howard, Pennsylvania 16841
By Serge Bielanko
It's officially fall now, which means Centre County is coming alive with hayrides and Halloween parades. That said, one of the most inspired and entertaining events of the season has to be the Punkin' Chunkin' Fall Festival at Bald Eagle State Park. Where else can you take your whole family to watch grown men and women operate clever homemade machines designed for one thing and one thing only: to hurl pumpkins a country mile out into the deepest waters of F.J. Sayers Lake? There's food and vendors galore on the beach and tons of activities for the kids to boot. Best of all? It's absolutely free to attend and it all helps raise critical funds for Howard's Volunteer Fire Company 14.
So I decided to launch some questions at firefighter, George Demchak, one of the driving forces behind the event.
An event where a pumpkin is chunked, as Demchak puts it, "...every two minutes, all day long."
George, when I was growing up, my grandfather used to take me to our local volunteer fire company's annual fundraiser. It was a turkey shoot, where people would gather in a field on a cold autumn day and shoot shotguns at paper targets in order to try and win a frozen bird. Howard Volunteer Fire Company 14 has really raised the bar when it comes to fundraisers. Your Punkin' Chunkin' Fall Festival is bigger and better than any Turkey Shoot, Bingo Night, or Soup Sale could ever dream of being. How did you come up with the idea?
I was first made aware of Punkin’ Chunkin’ on our annual trips to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. The National Competition started there.
One time a punkin’ was launched that flew off target & went straight through a church steeple.
Then the Discovery Channel began airing the National Punkin’ Chunkin’ Competition during the evening of Thanksgiving Day. We hosted our entire family for one year and I noticed a wide age group joined me to watch. My 11 yr old nephew watched; my 55 yr old Brother-in-law watched; my 87 yr old Mother-in law watched. I knew then that this event appealed to a wide audience. Coincidentally, I was formulating the idea of a fall festival as a fundraiser for our volunteer fire company and, since there are a ton of fall festivals already, I knew I needed a unique draw to get people to come to ours. One day it just hit me…our unique draw could be Punkin’ Chunkin’!
My kids and I have attended the festival every year since we moved to the area (Penns Valley) five years ago. Last year was a heartbreaker for us as fans when everything was cancelled due to major flooding. And so I can only imagine how devastating, both emotionally and financially, that was for you and the rest of your company. How hard was it to bounce back from that decision to have to cancel? How important is it that folks come out to support the festival after last year?
It was not our decision to cancel Punkin’ Chunkin’ last year. We had no choice. Due to flooding, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) shut the gates to Bald Eagle State Park on the morning of our festival. Our core staff was at the flooded park strategizing our revised plan for the festival when we learned we were cancelled from a post on Facebook. It was devastating. The closure of the park occurred on a Friday and we already had launching teams and craft vendors traveling to arrive for set-up that afternoon. We had less than 24 hours to spread the word of the cancellation. Each year, between 10,000-12,000 people attend our festival, so this was a huge task.
Additionally, the financial impact to the Howard Volunteer Fire Company could be monumental. This single event produces around 30% of our annual heat, fuel, electric, mortgage, and apparatus payments. We recognized the fact that many individuals were experiencing personal loss from the impact of the flooding. But we also knew others had it worse than us because many of our volunteer members were responding to flooding calls for 24 hours straight. The need for first-responders never stops.
How important is it that folks come out to support the festival after last year?
This year it's crucial for the public to support our fundraising efforts. We need their support so we can continue to provide the top quality service the region deserves. We need their help so we can help. We are a volunteer fire company; most all of our active members work full time jobs providing for their family. There are no paid positions. Our desire to serve comes from within: helping friends, neighbors and strangers.
It seems to me that the Punkin' Chunkin' Fall Festival has grown A LOT since it began in 2010. Did you ever imagine it would become so popular? And why do you think people flock to Bald Eagle State Park from near and far to be a part of it?
The first year of our Punkin’ Chunkin’ Fall Festival, we had 2 launching machines. One launching machine that was built by Howard Fire Company 14 members and another that was built by a fire company from Harrisburg. Some of our HFC members took our launching machine to the National Competition in Delaware where they met other teams and promoted our festival. Now we have many of the world famous launching teams bringing their machines to our festival. Over the years, we have been fortunate to have the Smokin’ Llamas, Half-a-Bubble Off, Tanger & others. Additionally, we have Punkin’ Chunkin’ attending our Festival. Fat Jimmy, the Lord of the Gourd & others have consistently given their support. At this time we have 6 teams committed to attend in 2017.
I don't know about everyone else, but I'm a big fan of standing on the same beach where I take my kids swimming all summer long, a cup of french fries in my hand, watching grown men and women launch pumpkins unbelievable distances out into the lake. What can you tell me about the people that build the catapults, trebuchets, and even air cannons that are the stars of the show? They travel here from many states, right? Is there a real spirit of competition among them, to see who can launch a pumpkin the farthest, or is mostly just for fun?
The launching teams compete in good-natured fun. The goal is to hit one of the targets floating on the lake. Our company's launching machine is called Stand Back & Watch This. It's a trebuchet machine standing approx. 27 ft. tall and powered by a maximum 900 lbs of concrete weights that drop straight down creating the thrust to hurl a punkin' at breakneck speeds for a distance hard for human eyes to comprehend. Other launching machines are human powered, torsion powered, spring powered, compressed air powered and more.
This event must play a massive role in keeping your volunteer fire company afloat each year. Yet it's a FREE event! So how are people who attend the Punkin' Chunkin' Fall Festival helping Howard Volunteer Fire Company 14 survive? And is there a place at the festival where they can donate directly to you folks?
The Howard Volunteer Fire Company Fall Punkin’ Chunkin’ Festival offers a variety of interests for folks attending. Attendees can visit over 100 craft vendors, over 30 food vendors, enjoy hayrides thru the scenic State Park, or watch as a wood carver creates items of artistic beauty using a chainsaw. You can even participate in a genuine old-fashioned Pie Eating Contest...no hands aloud! Come and marvel at the unexplained feats of our Strolling Magician. And, best of all: FREE Admission & FREE Parking! Our Company encourages and appreciates all donations made as folks exit our festival; we have members with boots collecting donations as folks leave the park.
Lastly, I've been catching a lot of fat healthy largemouth bass out of Sayers Reservoir this year on pumpkin-colored lures. Think there's any chance you might be responsible for that in a roundabout way?
Our festival strives to be a green event. We utilize recycling containers place throughout the grounds. Additionally, it is noteworthy to know that the punkins used at our Festival are non-edible punkins. They are an ornamental breed, not the type for human consumption. Our punkins are donated to HFC from a local Amish farm, Hilltop Farms on Jacksonville Road. Our Amish volunteer members provide well for our Fire Company. Once the punkins are launched and splash down into the lake, they're are gathered by our retrieval boats, brought ashore, placed into a truck & returned to the Amish Farm where they originated. Then they're used as food for the pigs at the farm. This provides for a complete recycle of the punkins used.
Howard Fire Company 14's 7th Annual Punkin' Chunkin' Fall Festival is Oct 21st at Bald Eagle State Park, Howard, PA. 10am to 5pm.
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