Clear sky, autumn crispness in the air. It was the perfect day to search for the Great Pumpkin.
The Valley had the perfect spot, too. Saturday brought hordes of parents and kids to Bob Critchfield’s pumpkin patch at the corner of Argonne Road and Maringo Drive.
For the 10th year now, Critchfield’s Pumpkin Hill is Halloween.
Weekend visitors were greeted by a sign reading “Pumpkin Hill - Land of the Giants” strung between two poles. And, no lie, a crow was perched on one them, cawing obnoxiously. But no one whipped out a pellet gun.
That’s because the folks who visited the 1-1/2 acres of growing gourds wanted the whole Halloween package. The giant stalks of corn, the dummies wearing latex monster masks, the striped orange tent where customers weighed their carvable vegetables.
Pumpkin Hill had it all.
Even rides. Critchfield, 71, hopped into the driver’s seat of his Ford tractor. He had a trailer attached, filled with hay-bale seats. “Is everybody ready to go?” he asked.
A group of kids stood by and, with varying yelps, answered in the affirmative. They piled aboard Critchfield’s “train.” He turned from grower to engineer, and away they went.
Before one of the runs, Dave Hjortedal bid adieu to his 5-year-old daughter, Stephanie. He waved her off: “OK, have fun!”
“I’ll tell you all about it!” she hollered back.
Now, Hjortedal could get down to business. That ride gave him time to inspect the merchandise.
Wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, he perused the pumpkins. He looked for a smooth face to work his cosmetic surgery on. “It gets pretty intricate,” he said.
The train came back, emptying its kiddie cargo. “You have fun?” Hjortedal asked Stephanie. “Didn’t fall out or anything?”
The kids hammed it up as they hopped off. Parents fumbled about, backing into things as they held video recorders or Polaroids to their faces.
Once down to the business of buying, everyone looked for different things in their squash. Some look for knotted tumors (a potential nose). Others look for a long, dried-out coil of vine still attached.
“Bad hair day,” said Karl Rieger as he weighed in his catch, 2-year-old daughter Kayla watching. The brown vine will add charm to his Jack-O’ Lantern. “It’s character.”
Critchfield is more of a two-dimensional artist. Several of his painted pumpkins sit under the sales tent. He won first prize for his painting prowess at a recent contest.
What he really takes pride in, though, is feeding his orange children well. Another sign reads, “Largest Pumpkins in the Northwest Sold Here.” He means it.
During the 10 years he has raised the giants, he’s taken home 12 plaques from various contests.
Two weeks ago, he won 10th place at a show for a pumpkin that weighed well over 600 pounds. He also placed first for his huge watermelon and squash.
“I’m real proud of these awards,” he said from under his orange Pumpkin Patch Kid hat.
How do you get a pumpkin to grow half the size of a Volkswagen?
First of all, manure. Mountains of manure. That, and breathing room.
A typical giant needs a 30-foot-square space so it can suck all the fertilizer from the ground without competition.
“They’re ferocious feeders,” said Critchfield’s wife, Rosalie.
Critchfield raised most of his pumpkins on an undisclosed 20-acre plot of Valley land. The small Pumpkin Hill patch is more of a retail spot, and a place where people can pick their own. “Kids love that,” Critchfield said.
This is definitely his time of year. Critchfield said he’ll sell 30 tons worth of pumpkins to shoppers, and another 63 to other vendors.
And while the farming is a labor of love, it’s labor nonetheless.
His season begins in March, planting then babying his special seeds. He gets up at 5 a.m. daily to feed and water them. “I can outwork a teenager,” he said. Not bad for a retirement-aged man who lost a leg in a mining accident in the 1960s.
He admits, though, that he has some gripes about the business. Critchfield said sometimes he gets as much trick as treat. In past years, sneaky teenagers vandalized his crop. “They even try to steal my spooks,” he said. This year, he guards his patch and takes some of the decor down at night.
Customers pay Critchfield back by never missing a Pumpkin Hill pilgrimage. Laurie Hitchcock has shopped there every year since it opened. “My oldest son is 17, and he was little when we first started coming here,” she said. Now sons Gerad, 10, and Michael, 4, make the annual trek.
Critchfield loves the kids and loves the job. “I haven’t had a dissatisfied customer in 10 years,” he said.
And about that Great Pumpkin? Look no more, Linus. There were several specimens on hand weighing in the several hundred pound range. For Critchfield, raising giants is the best part.
“I’ll never quit,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: EASY PICKIN’S Pumpkin Hill, on the southeast corner of Argonne Road and Maringo Drive, is open every day through the month of October. There are no particular hours of operation - the Critchfields live there this time of year. Pumpkins are priced at 10 cents per pound.
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