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Sybil helen 560Friends Sybil Mercer (left) and Helen Wuerth displayed their past Pumpkinfest rug hooking submissions September 28. Donning her Ailsa Craig Challenge sweater, Helen holds up her “Pumpkin Grinner” which she created in 2014, and her piece “Angel in my garden” which includes her late husband Fred Wuerth. Mercer holds her 1998 submission “Pumpkins and People”. Photo submitted

The Saugeen Shores community has been coming together to see ”whose is bigger” ever since friends and pumpkin rivals - former Town Treasurer Doug Court and former Port Elgin Mayor Fred Wuerth - put their pumpkins to the test at Coulter Parkette on October 11, 1986. Thirty years ago the heaviest pumpkin weighed 242 pounds. Two years later, the event became part of World Pumpkin Confederation and even spawned a rivalry with a little village in Middlesex County called Ailsa Craig.

When Wuerth was mayor of Port Elgin, he and his councillors were issued a challenge by the mayor of Alisa Craig in 1989. The challenge: Who could grow the biggest pumpkin? In media reports provided by Helen Wuerth, Fred’s widow, from the late 1980s, the challenge was that if Port Elgin produced the biggest pumpkin, members of the southern village would each cook and serve Port Elgin Council with a prepared beef steak from Middlesex County. If Port Elgin had the lighter pumpkin, they would each purchase a brick for $5 for a recreation centre that Ailsa Craig was building at the time.

Over the years it was a battle over the greatest pumpkin with Port Elgin topping in 1990 with a 354 pound pumpkin while Ailsa Craig submitted a 284 pound pumpkin. There were reports back and forth that Ailsa Craig had sent spies to Port Elgin to try and discover their secret and claims that “heavy water” had been used. The final year of the challenge was in 1991 when Ailsa Craig took top spot with a 349 pound pumpkin, compared to Port Elgin’s 330 pounder.

The early memories of Pumpkinfest are some of the fondest memories that Helen Wuerth has of the festival, now in its 30th year. Although the festival has moved from Coulter Parkette to the former beach casino to the Curling Club until it spilled out to the high school, only to find a home back in downtown Port Elgin; but with the big changes, some things remain the same. Doug Court, who Helen said was the instigator in the weigh-off, is now a Master Grower and is still growing his giant pumpkins that are clearly bigger than 242 pounds, weighing in at 660.5 pounds in 2015. The seed spitting event is still a hit with attendees and the craft show still draws a crowd.

Helen said that the Aisla Craig competitions were among the biggest things in her recollection that had to do with the early years of Pumpkinfest. However, her favourite memory was when Fred - with the help of their grandchildren, Ian and Kerri - created a Jack-o’-lantern out of the massive pumpkin. Helen was then able to make four pumpkin pies from the pumpkin cut out to make the eyes and mouth. The pies tasted good, she admitted.

For the Wuerth’s there was no big secret as was claimed by the council from Ailsa Craig but Fred did recruit members of the community for their help.

“It was always a challenge to keep them growing in the backyard,” said Helen. “Fred’s biggest secret was to tell all the kids that came through on their way to school (École Port Elgin Saugeen Central). He was afraid of them being damaged and he would say to a few of them, ‘I will make you a policeman for a pumpkin patch,’ and ‘I will give you a pumpkin for halloween,’ so the pumpkins were never damaged.”

Helen’s days of pumpkin growing may be over but she still continues to submit works of art through rug hooking to be on display at Pumpkinfest, something that still amazes Pumpkinfest Board member, Connie Barker.

“The hours of dedication that it takes to put something together is just absolutely amazing,” said Barker. “The patience and the blending of the colours is just incredible and what it does for Pumpkinfest, is it just brings all that colour and what we do as an event to real, it all matches up.”

She continued, “it just shows a part of our community and how much Pumpkinfest has touched the lives over the years, over 30 years. From little wee kids who stand there and hug a pumpkin with all the awe, and then come back when they have children of their own so they can put their child on a giant pumpkin so their child can experience what they did.”

fred 560The late Fred Wuerth with his 409 pound pumpkin in 1990. Photo submitted

ian m 560Fred and Helen’s grandson Ian MacInnon inside the pumpkin in 1990. Helen created four pumpkin pies from the cutouts. Photo submitted

sybil hook 560Sybil Mercer’s Pumpkins and People piece. Even with Mercer’s short stature, she is still able to see the giant pumpkins through the throngs of people that visit Pumpkinfest every year. Photo submitted

Fred hook 560Helen Wuerth’s rug hooking piece dedicated to her late husband Fred, with Angel in my Garden. Photo submitted

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