One Scary Good Cause
The Camp Sunshine Pumpkin Festival lights up Freeport for one of the season’s most heart-warming events
By Will Bleakley
Photographed by Ted Axelrod
Matt Hoidal has a way of turning the tables on the things we’re supposed to be most scared of. He does it every summer as the executive director of Camp Sunshine, a camp where children with life-threatening illnesses and their families spend a week, free of charge, relaxing near Sebago Lake. Come October he does the same with the Camp Sunshine Pumpkin Festival at L.L.Bean in Freeport. The festival uses the haunting visual of thousands of illuminated jack-o-lanterns to raise money for the camp and serve as the backdrop for one of the season’s best family Halloween parties.
Last year’s more than five thousand jack-o-lanterns covered the grounds at L.L.Bean. In 2006, when he held the event in Boston, Hoidal achieved a Guinness world record by setting Boston Commons ablaze with 30,128 illuminated pumpkins. Some have carved into them the traditional triangle-shaped eyes and pointed teeth — similar to what you might see on the Headless Horseman — but most designs would make the hearts of even the most sinister of Halloween ghouls melt. In 2011, about a thousand gourds with carved hearts greeted L.L.Bean customers, while others lined the streets with commemorative ribbons or the words “live, laugh, love” chiseled into their façade.
“Pumpkins are nostalgic and bring you back to being a child,” says Hoidal. “It’s a time-honored tradition, the whole family rallies behind something like that and can enjoy it.” This year he’s hoping the “scoregourd” will exceed ten thousand pumpkins. That would raise one hundred thousand dollars and send fifty families next summer to Camp Sunshine. And if he reaches that goal? “Well, we may go for another world record in 2013.”
The number of pumpkins at each festival depends entirely on outside support. The simplest way to add to the total is to sponsor a gourd for ten dollars. Each jack-o-lantern gets placed either on scaffolding, along sidewalks, or as part of a visually stunning house that uses pumpkins (as oppose to brick or shingles) to cover its exterior. But the festival wouldn’t be possible without an outpouring of help from the community. The Morse Street School in Freeport carves 150 pumpkins and its students, from pre-K to second grade, carry them from the school to the event each year. Freeport High School carves a total of one thousand pumpkins, while a number of other schools in the surrounding area add their own gourds to the mix.
In addition to schools and corporate sponsors, individuals do what they can to contribute. Dr. David Andrews turned part of his idyllic Freeport property into a pumpkin field for the sole purpose of helping the festival. Andrews, who had never farmed pumpkins before, purchased the seeds and equipment, and learned the practice so he could contribute to a mission he deeply supports.
It’s primarily a fund-raiser (“We turn orange into green,” Hoidal says), but for many families the pumpkin festival is their go-to Halloween party. “This is our major event of the Halloween season,” says Greg Tucker, the promotional director of L.L.Bean. “We’ve had a long relationship with Camp Sunshine, and it’s a program we truly believe in, so we donate the grounds, and help organize the day’s music.” Beyond setting world records, and raising money, the Camp Sunshine Pumpkin Festival offers pumpkin flavored whoopie pie eating contests, a children’s costume parade, carving challenges, football tosses, gourd bowling, and seed spitting contests for its 25,000 visitors. “The reason we started the festival was to come up with a unique concept that involved the whole family,” Hoidal says. “It couldn’t just be a black tie dinner for the affluent class, it had to be a festival open to all generations.”
This year Hoidal hopes to extend the festival farther into Freeport and get more of the town involved. “I want to line Main Street with pumpkins and have it become an event the entire town participates in,” he says. Normally, the unexpected presence of thousands of illuminated jack-o-lanterns creeping into a charming coastal town would be the opening to John Carpenter’s next horror film. When it’s Camp Sunshine, though, you can’t help but lend a hand.
If You Go: This year’s pumpkin festival is on Saturday, October 27 at L.L.Bean’s Freeport campus. Festivities run from noon until 8 p.m. You can sponsor a pumpkin and find a full schedule of events at campsunshine.org/pumpkinfestival or call 207-655-3825.