Pumpkin Nights Takes the Humble Jack-o’-Lantern to New, Magical Grandeur

Not your grandma's pumpkin patch

Photo by John Anderson

Behold, the humble pumpkin. Cucurbita pepo, that thick-skinned orange fruit of the New World, so tasty and yet so malleable under the artist's knife that it replaced the unforgiving mangelwurzel as the vegetable of choice for the jack-o'-lantern, the glowing home for Halloween candles that scares away the spooks and hobgoblins.

Now imagine 5,000 of them, carved, layered, structured, and arrayed to create magical visions of All Hallows wonders. That's what Pumpkin Nights, this year's family-friendly outdoor trail at Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms, will spotlight that most magical of squashes. Pumpkin Nights founder Travis Snyder explained, "For 90% of the year, a pumpkin has no real meaning. But for 30 days it's front and center."

Photo by John Anderson

But there's a little secret. Most of the pumpkins here are artificial. Why? Well, like any vegetable, the real thing rots. As Snyder explained, even if you could carve 5,000 pumpkins, "once you cut them you've got about a week before they're done." Plus, there's the weight. "A medium one weighs five pounds, so it's completely impossible to do really large displays."

And large displays is what Pumpkin Nights provides, with a team crafting displays and installations that Snyder called "big, bold, and beautiful."

Add "complex" to those qualites. There's a huge team of artists that have spent months restoring and reviving old favorite displays and coming up with new designs, while also trying to source all the new carvable gourds they need. That's a challenge in itself: Real pumpkins may rot, but in a year in which global supply chains have been upended, it would have been really handy if artificial pumpkins really did grow on trees. "With all the delays in shipping and trucking, it's affected even our abilities to ship the displays."

“For 90% of the year, a pumpkin has no real meaning. But for 30 days it’s front and center.” – Pumpkin Nights founder Travis Snyder

It helps that Snyder's team is used to challenges. His company specializes in big, colorful events (quite literally, being the organizers behind the international charity fundraising Color Run 5K). "We focus on bringing really neat experiences to people," he said, "and things that are a fresh take. With the Color Run, traditional 5Ks had been around for a while, and we wanted to spice it up and attract people who were maybe too intimidated to participate." When Halloween started to cast its spell over them, Snyder said they realized that "there are haunted houses that are a little too scary, and then there are corn mazes and pumpkin patches, so we wanted to make a fresh take on Halloween that was for everybody."

Photo by John Anderson

He called the decision "artist-driven ... Over the years we've gathered together really talented artists and craftsmen who have produced really neat stuff for our other events over the years, and a lot of them really like Halloween." In 2016, his Utah-based team set to carving for the first Pumpkin Nights, held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds: This year, after testing audience interest through advertising, they settled on running events in Austin and Dallas, and Snyder called the experience of working here "really neat." Most of their events last a couple of days, and he barely sees the location: But for the months of on-the-ground prep for Pumpkin Nights, "we're really living there. ... To go there and work, and really get to know the people there, it really enlarges our world."

Snyder said he knew there's a particular responsibility this year, when people need that sense of seasonal wonder more than ever: "Coming out of the pandemic, there's a lot of stress on people. So the idea that you could spend an evening with your friends and loved ones, doing something that you've never done before, we really like that."

Now, he just hopes that visitors feel the same sense of wonder and joy he has whenever he sees his favorite part of the half-milelong display: a pair of 30-foot-tall flying dragons. "People may have seen a dragon before, but they've never seen one made from pumpkins, breathing fire, suspended over a pond with pumpkin turtles underneath."

Pumpkin Nights at Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms, 10621 Pioneer Farms, through Oct. 31, closed Tuesdays. Tickets, info, and COVID protocols at pumpkinnights.com.

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Halloween 2021, Haunted Attractions, Pumpkin Nights, Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farm, Travis Snyder

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