NORTH SWANZEY — Jennifer Matthews is about to be bombarded with pumpkins, but she’s sitting in her newly rented office just a stone’s throw from the Cheshire Fairgrounds looking as cool as a cucumber. Matthews’ company, Memorable Events LLC, is tackling the job of putting on the first Monadnock Pumpkin Festival at the Swanzey fairgrounds Saturday, Oct. 24, and she’s determined to make it a success — and an annual event for years to come.
A professional event planner based in Westmoreland, Matthews said the idea for hosting the festival came to her as she was driving past the fairgrounds in April. The week before, the Keene City Council had denied a permit for the 2015 downtown festival following rioting in the city last October outside the annual event’s footprint.
She wondered why it couldn’t simply be moved to a better-suited location.
“Without the downtown component, it becomes a whole lot less insane,” she said.
Matthews had helped put on the 2005 Keene festival as a member of Center Stage Cheshire County, and knew the logistics it would involve. She just had to get enough people excited about the idea to get it off the ground.
They weren’t hard to find.
Past participants and businesses stepped up. Former members of Let It Shine Inc., which organized the past four Keene festivals, lent their expertise. And the region loves its pumpkins, she noted.
She’s counting on that love to bring out lots of people, all carrying carved pumpkins (and candles) to add to the festival display. Matthews isn’t out to break any records (Keene holds the Guinness record for most lit jack-o’-lanterns), but she wants and needs those pumpkins to turn the fairgrounds into acres of glowing gourds.
To that end, Memorable Events will host a free community pumpkin-carving event Thursday, Oct. 22, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Cheshire Fairgrounds. Pumpkins will be provided; participants are asked to bring their own carving tools. The Stoddard PTO will host a bake sale for those who need a sugar boost to complete their jack-o’-lanterns.
People can drop off their pumpkins Friday, Oct. 23, from noon to 6 p.m., or just bring them on Saturday when they come for the festival.
“It’s been a great community effort, and a lot of it has been grassroots,” she said.
She’s also working with downtown Keene businesses to ensure they get to see a share of the day’s profits.
Some will offer discounts to those who display their entry bracelets from the fairgrounds. A few will have a presence on-site, directing festival-goers to offerings downtown. There will also be booths for local artists and craftspeople to promote their work.
And she’s gone out of her way to ensure that local nonprofit groups — many of which have depended on the annual pumpkin festival in Keene as their major fundraiser — get in on the action. Matthews has 25 booths set aside just for nonprofit groups, and they’ll be paying about $300 for the spaces, half the price they paid for a space downtown, she said.
Matthews has planned live music, a large tent filled with activities for kids, pumpkin carving and catapulting contests, a children’s costume parade and a fireworks display to close out the day’s events.
The costume contest has taken on a life of its own, she said, with people clamoring for “cosplay,” or costume play, where participants wear costumes and accessories to represent a specific character from manga, anime, comic books, cartoons, video games, or live-action films and television series.
There will also be “larpers,” live-action role players, who act in character, interacting with one another as part of a larger performance.
The Great Pumpkin Mile road race will benefit a new Elm City Rotary Club project, which gives away pairs of new sneakers to 2nd-graders in Cheshire County. The club also puts on the annual Clarence DeMar Marathon. Sponsors have lined up to host the “The Pumpkin Mile” and donate prizes to the winners.
In addition to the road race, there’s Fright Fest, put on by the Keene Lions Club, with proceeds from that attraction going to support the club’s community outreach programs.
Then there’s the baking contest — pumpkin pies for adults to enter for competition, pumpkin breads for kids. She’s asking each participant to make two: one to judge, the other to sell, with proceeds benefiting The Community Kitchen in Keene.
And she’s promising the pumpkins will be a very visible part of the new event. She’s not giving away too many details at this point — she wants it to be something of a surprise — but there will be zigzag scaffolding to display the entries, as well as pumpkin-laden towers and structures designed by the Keene State College architecture department.
The one thing that won’t be available at the fair is alcohol. Matthews says it’s going to be a dry event, and backpacks and coolers will be subject to search by fair security guards. Those found with alcohol in their possession will be asked to leave.
The fairgrounds, being an open space, has no occupancy limit, so the crowds are limited only by the amount of parking Matthews is able to line up.
Right now, between the fairgrounds, the nearby Dillant-Hopkins Airport and the donation of parking from Moore Nanotechnology Systems, down the road from the fairgrounds, she’s got space for about 8,000 vehicles at any given time. Cost is $10 per car, with some of the proceeds going to the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention; the Cheshire Fair Association, which owns the fairgrounds property; and Rouleau’s Taekwondo school.
She expects some turnover — the folks who arrive at 10 a.m. aren’t likely to still be there 10 hours later when it wraps up — and she’s keeping her fingers crossed for good weather.
“But if social media is any indication, it’s going to be well-attended,” she said.
The Monadnock Pumpkin Festival will be held Saturday, Oct. 24, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Cheshire Fairgrounds in Swanzey. Admission is $5, with children ages 5 and under free. Information: monadnockpumpkinfestival.org or on Facebook.