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The Pumpkin King
Pesaquid Lake, Nova Scotia, 1999
Cara could hardly believe what she was seeing, but there they were. Grown adults laughing and putting on life jackets as they climbed not into boats but into huge, hollowed-out... pumpkins? Some of the strange boats were brightly painted, and others more greenish-grey than orange, but those were definitely pumpkins floating near the shore of the lake.
“Are they really going to paddle those things?” she asked her dad. A kind older man near them grinned. “I think it’s pretty strange myself,” he said. “But I always like seeing people doing things with giant pumpkins. And it’s great to have visitors like yourselves come join us for the race.”
Cara’s dad turned to the man, and then his eyes lit up. “You’re Howard Dill, aren’t you? The man who started the whole giant pumpkin thing!”
Mr. Dill half nodded, half shrugged as he winked at Cara. “My friends call me Howie. When I was about your age, I was just fascinated by pumpkins. I took it as a challenge to grow the biggest ones I could.”
Someone blew a whistle and the rowers started off in their wobbly pumpkin boats. Some paddled fairly straight, some zig-zagged and some just went around in circles. The people watching on shore cheered and shouted encouragement.
“I read all about how to grow plants and how they get big.” He paused. “Did you know that pumpkins have male flowers and female flowers?” Cara shook her head.
“Well, I took a male flower from one kind of pumpkin and a female flower from another. I wanted to get the best of both kinds so they’d be big but have a nice colour. I have a stack of notebooks at home full of pictures and reminders about what worked and what didn’t. It was fun competing against other farmers at the fair every year. And I just kept doing that — tinkering away to make them bigger and better.”
Cara’s dad was getting excited.“He didn’t just tinker, Care Bear. He grew the biggest pumpkins of all time! Dill’s Atlantic Giant.”
Mr. Dill shrugged again. “Oh, I had some winners, but nothing like they have today. We used to think 500 pounds was huge, but a few years ago someone grew one twice that size. They get bigger and heavier every year. I still can’t quite believe it.”
A woman who’d been standing nearby chimed in. “Howie, tell them the whole story. Those championship pumpkins all come from your seeds.”
When Mr. Dill just smiled, she went on. “Every winner comes from Dill’s Atlantic Giant seeds. He and Hilda mail them all over the world. The United States, Thailand, Europe. I can’t imagine spending all that time on a pumpkin, but people love it.”
Cara tried not to giggle as she pictured a globe with giant pumpkins popping up all over the place.
“I figured after all the work I put in, I should share them with other people,” Mr. Dill said. “I get such a kick out of seeing my seeds used to grow bigger pumpkins every year. When someone breaks a record, I make sure to write them a letter.
“They’re pretty serious about it, but I’ve always been a farmer first. We raise cattle and I like to help out at the Hants County Exhibition,” he added. “And I enjoy talking about pumpkins to the people who visit the farm.”
“Plus, you won’t find a bigger hockey fan anywhere,” the woman who’d joined them said. “You should see his collection of equipment and hockey cards and things. The Windsor Hockey Heritage Society wouldn’t exist without him.”
A few of the paddlers had broken away from the zig-zagging, twirling boats and were making a fairly straight line for the far shore. Some of the pumpkins were looking pretty soggy as they took on water, and one paddler had abandoned his boat altogether, saluting it as it sank under the surface just a few metres from land.
“Better luck next year!” someone called out.
“I need to grow a bigger boat!” the man shouted back. “Howie, I’m placing an order right now for your very best seeds!”
Although we imagined these conversations, Howard Dill was a real person who lived near Windsor, N.S., from 1934 to 2008. He left school after Grade 6, but he taught himself plant genetics — the study of how plants develop and pass on things like size, colour, yield and more. He was a successful farmer who was always interested in learning and making things better.
In 1979, he grew a pumpkin weighing 199 kilograms (the people in our story were still talking about weights in pounds), which smashed a 76-year-old Canadian record. (An Ontario man named William Warnock grew the first competition-winning pumpkin for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It weighed 166 kg or 365 pounds.)
Also in 1979, Dill patented Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds, registering his creation with the government. He kept growing huge pumpkins using normal methods, while others using his seeds and fancy new techniques surpassed him. Competitors now use detailed scientific analysis to figure out exactly what kind and how much fertilizer and water to use.
Dill would probably have been amazed at the current world record, set by American Travis Gienger in October 2023. His pumpkin weighed in at about 1,247 kg or 2,749 pounds. The Canadian champion grown by Lloydminster, Alta.’s Don Crews weighed 1,150 kg or 2,537 lb. That’s about the same as a fully grown bison or a very small car.
The race in the story is also real. Dill’s son, Danny, started the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta in 1999. The Dill farm is a popular tourist site, welcoming thousands of visitors every year to check out the pumpkin patch and buy seeds for smaller pumpkins to use for pies or making jack-o’-lanterns, as well as gourds, watermelon and squash.