Camden now boasts the claim to fame of being the home to “The Great Pumpkin,” of Missouri.
It all started with an idea. What would it be like to grow a big pumpkin and enter it in competition? This thought crossed Nancy Burgess’ mind several times through the years.
When asked how she got started doing this, Burgess laughed. “I’ve raised pumpkins for 35 years, but this was my first year to grow one of these.”
All good ideas start with a seed, and that is what Burgess got.
“It was a present at Christmas,” Burgess chuckled. “They just put it in a Christmas sack.”
So, it was not a traditional Christmas present, but what do you get for the person who has everything, right?
And, where exactly do you get this special seed? “Well,” Burgess smiled, “My husband ordered it off the internet. It came from Warner Seed out on the east coast.”
It is important to know the heritage of the pumpkin. In fact, some pumpkin enthusiasts are as knowledgeable about their pumpkin’s parents as genealogists are about their family tree. Vine or tree, it doesn’t matter. The parents are important, and you can trace each pumpkin’s history.
“Its mother weighed 1,446 pounds,” said Burgess. “The people back in Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York and Canada are really into this. They said Missouri can’t grow anything over 1,000 pounds.”
Guess she “showed” them.
Burgess’ son, Collison, agreed, “There’re some people really obsessed about this.”
Growing a mammoth pumpkin is quite an endeavor. It is labor intensive and requires a great deal of effort – and a lot of space.
“It requires being at home. I planted it in the greenhouse in April,” said Burgess.
By the time it was ready to transplant into the garden, Burgess had the space ready. “You have to have a 30-ft. by 40 ft. space for them.”
Much like watching the growth of an infant, and worrying about its safety, Burgess smiled and explained the care this special squash received.
“When the vines start to come out you leave the first two, but then cut back any that branch off of those. Those two vines are buried into the ground and when they start to flower, you just keep one blossom,” said Burgess.
Also, like watching out for a child, Burgess said, “You watch the weather. When a cloud comes up, you go home and cover the pumpkin.”
She went on to say they actually built a greenhouse over it. “We had a screen and a shade cloth, and plastic if we needed it. You have to keep the vines covered and mulch on the vines, and we built a fence around it to keep the coons away.”
The pumpkin hit its growth spurt the first part of July and started gaining weight daily.
“It’d gain 35 pounds a day,” she stated. “We watched the heat too, because if it got too hot, it might crack.”
Burgess admitted the bottoms aren’t the best place to grow large pumpkins. “The bottoms are bad. It’s windy down here. Vines can’t get blown over. They need a windbreak.”
Burgess grew the pumpkin in her garden at her home in Camden, not down in the bottoms where her family farms.
When asked what her secret for winning was, Burgess shrugged. “I really didn’t do anything. I just got a really good seed.”
The ‘Sasquash” was taken to the Great Pumpkin Weigh Off in Republic, Mo., on Oct. 4 where it ‘squashed’ the former Missouri state record of 878.5 pounds. At 1,244 pounds, Burgess soundly earned her bragging rights – and room to spare.
The first large pumpkin was raised by a man that crossed that pumpkin with a squash. The hybrd was named Atlantic Giant, and a few years ago his rights to this combination expired. Now there are many people trying to create their own winners. It is interesting to note that since these pumpkins are a hybrd, they have the possibility of “throwing a squash.”
“The really big ones didn’t start showing up until recently,” said Burgess. “Six years ago, this would’ve been a world record.”
So far, the world record was set in Boston by a pumpkin that weighed 1,800 pounds. Burgess said her pumpkin is ranked 55th so far, but the weigh-ins have not yet finished for the year.
The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth serves as the record keepers of winning pumpkins from around the world.
What are Burgess’ plans for this winner?
“I’m going to carve it for Halloween,” she said.
But, that’s not the end of the story. All pumpkins will eventually return to the soil that gave them life. Burgess will smile as she scoops a seemingly endless supply of pumpkin ‘guts’ out of that pumpkin. Being careful not to fall inside, she will carefully gather the seeds, for now she has the magic seeds to sell for the next Great Pumpkin. At $125 each (and up), the seeds are in great demand.
PHOTO: Delbert Strickler, left, Collie Burgess, center, and seasonal farmer Carlos load up the mammoth pumpkin grown by Nancy Burgess of Camden. Her pumpkin squashed out the old state record of 878.5 pounds when it weighed in at 1,244 pounds in the Great Pumpkin National Weigh-In Contest held in Republic, Mo., Saturday, Oct. 4. (Photo by Brenda Jensen/The Daily News)