Season of the 'vegetable butcher'

Thursday, October 31, 2002

KENOVA, W.Va. -- It started innocently enough when Ric Griffith carved a few pumpkins to fill empty space on his porch and teach his daughters about Halloween.

As his children grew, so did the project.

Twenty-four years and 14,226 pumpkins later, Griffith's annual Halloween display of carved jack-o-lanterns has reached a new plateau. This year, 2,624 carved pumpkins will create a lighting display that can be seen by motorists across the Ohio River.

"I'm a vegetable butcher, and people are coming to see it," said Griffith, a pharmacist and president of Kenova's City Council.

He expects more than 10,000 visitors to flock to Kenova, a town of 3,485 on the Ohio River, to visit the house. Griffith anticipates 5,000 guests on Halloween, when a police officer directs traffic along his street.

What began with four pumpkins grew to 12 in 1979 and 40 a year later. The 1993 display had 500 pumpkins, and it swelled to 800 in 1997 during what Griffith calls his "days of minimal insanity."

"Because of people's reaction, it jumped into an obsessive-compulsive disorder."

Wired for pumpkins

Griffith estimated that his electric bill increased by about $100 for five days of all-night illumination last October; only about 20 pumpkins are lit with candles. He has spent $1,000 to wire his front lawn with electrical outlets.

And he's getting plenty of bang for his buck: The lights are visible from Ohio Route 7, and bargeworkers on the river have said they can see Griffith's pumpkins aglow.

"This is the last year I am going to spend a large amount of money on it," Griffith said. "I want to make it compelling enough that it goes on without me, without (my family) and becomes a fall festival that the town does."

He spent about $3,000, or $1.14 per pumpkin, for this year's pumpkins.

Griffith has applied for nonprofit organization status and wants to create a fall festival. He plans to carve corporate logos into some pumpkins to raise money. Eventually, he would like to move the display to the former Ceredo-Kenova High School.

"What I want is for this thing to develop a life of its own," he said. "It has a magical effect on people. ... The response both amazes and amuses me."

Residents and visitors take ownership of the project because they are involved on several levels. Griffith said only one pumpkin in 24 years has been smashed because so many residents are active.

His key volunteers are: his wife, Sandi; their three daughters; and their friends.

First, Griffith draws each face with a black marker. Then, volunteers carve a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin. Volunteers scrape out the seeds with plastic spoons and dispose them into trash bags. The hollowed pumpkins are dipped in bleach, preserving them for five days.

Either Griffith or one of his sons-in-law then takes between 30 seconds and two minutes to carve each face with a jigsaw.

"The first year I was carving, Ric handed me a jigsaw and said 'Go at it,'" said Jorge Romero, Griffith's son-in-law.

Then, volunteers take the pumpkins and place them in their assigned locations -- on the porch, on a wooden bleacher in the lawn or on one of several structures.

He has constructed a Noah's ark, a pyramid, a map of the United States, an American flag, a 16-foot-square map of West Virginia and an archway beneath which a couple wished to get married in 1997.

The cleanup effort begins Nov. 1 and takes five days.

After the marathon set-up sessions, the hordes of trick-or-treaters and tourists, and cleanup, Griffith aches. In previous years, a creaky back prevented him from bending over to wash his feet.

"This is crazy," Griffith said. "But it's one of the prices of my lunacy."

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