KENOVA, W.Va. — It all started innocently enough.
Ric Griffith carved five pumpkins — one each for his three daughters and one for himself and his wife. He set them out on the porch of another house where the family used to live in this small town at the eastern edge of Wayne County.
“The next year I built a shelf and went up to about 20 pumpkins. Then it jumped to about 200 pumpkins.”
In 1991, the family moved to an historic Victorian house at 748 Beech St., with a gabled roof, lots of eaves and a large front and back yard.
Griffith couldn’t help himself. All he could see were new places to put out yet more pumpkins, each featuring a multiplicity of different designs carved out with handheld jigsaws.
He kept adding pumpkins, inviting friends and volunteers off the street to help carve them as word grew of that crazy “Pumpkin House” in Kenova.
“In the year 2000, I said we gotta’ do 2,000 pumpkins,” said Griffith, who by day runs the historic Griffith & Fiel drug store on Chestnut Street and recently ended a term as mayor of the town.
After that year, some key volunteers and friends gave him some sage advice after all the hard work of putting out that many pumpkins: “Don’t do 2,000 again!”
It wasn’t as if Griffith didn’t hear what they said. But, like, there was still space for more pumpkins...
“The next year I did 3,000,” he said.
And 3,000 pumpkins it has been ever since — cut, de-pulped, designed and carved by a squad of more than 500 volunteers who know that if it’s late October, the Pumpkin House needs them.
“We have done probably about 56,000 pumpkins since 1978,” said Griffith.
His wife, Sandi, is a psychologist, and Griffith said she has suggested he might be suffering from a specialized pumpkin-related disorder.
“She thinks I have an obsessive compulsive disorder, but what does she know,” he said, laughing.
It might also be that she worries what might happen if the Pumpkin Master — or the “village idiot” as he sometimes calls himself — were suddenly not there to manage what has become a national, if not an international attraction. After all, the house has been featured on the Travel Channel and a thousand articles, TV stories and videos through the years.
“I asked my wife ‘What are you going to do if I keel over dead and 30,000 people show up?’ She said ‘I’ll put up a sign that says: He’s dead — go away!”
Griffith responded: “It’s nice to know your so sentimental about it.’ She said, ‘Oh, I’ll miss you, but I’m not answering 30,000 questions.”
Actually, no one — least of all Griffith — is sure how many people show up each year to view the Pumpkin House. The 30,000 figure has been an estimate used in some past stories on the house, whose 3,000 pumpkins will stay lit via electric lights all night long through about Nov. 3, or whenever the majority of the pumpkins start to wilt and rot.
“I have no clue. There have already been a few thousand people come by,” he said in an interview Thursday morning. “And I’ve met people even this year from all over the country and several foreign visitors. I know that during the day before and day after and on Halloween, it’s packed and it lasts for three hours where you can’t walk through the yard. The line of traffic stretches some years all the way from my house to a mile-and-a-half to the interstate and it’s totally packed inside the yard.
“If you had 30,000 people at Marshall stadium it would be a problem. It’s the nightmare on Beech Street for my neighbors.”
On the other hand, the weekend of the Pumpkin House and the C-K Autumn Fest , which takes place this Friday and Saturday, is the biggest week for B and O taxes in the year, said Griffith.
But it’s the communal effort and pleasure the house brings to so many people that keeps Griffith and a host of volunteers at it, year in and out. Some volunteers hear that the house needs help and just appear while others show up every year for pumpkin preparation duty.
“It’s an amazing thing. They’re coming by every day now,” he said. “I don’t know 95 percent of the people.”
Children love the house, which is anything but spooky, lit up by 3,000 pumpkins illuminated by strings of electric lights. A wall of computer-synchronized pumpkins plays music. “When the ‘1812 Overture’ or ‘Carmina Burana’ or ‘Ode to Joy’ or ‘Stars and Stripes’ plays, it scrolls down and tells them what the Pumpkin Orchestra is playing that night. People cram in to hear the whole list of songs,” said Griffith.
Some Marshall University professors give students extra credit for helping to pump up the Pumpkin House. Griffith likes to add new elements each year. This year, Marshall’s wonderfully named math club, ‘The Thundering Nerds,’ have created a math quiz carved into pumpkins on a wall 48 feet long and 12 feet high. Each of the pumpkins in the quiz will have a letter or a symbol carved into it, said Griffith.
“It’s going to be a series of math problems. I think that’s kind of a different thing. Who knows — there’s maybe thousands of kids who don’t come to the Pumpkin House because it’s gonna be a test!”
People will submit their answers to the pumpkin puzzle by Saturday afternoon and winners and prizes will be announced about 9 p.m. Saturday.
Griffith gets all his pumpkins from Drew Clark, a Proctorville, Ohio, farmer, who offloads them into the house’s backyard with a forklift.
“I’ve always said that my least favorite time of this is when my backyard is orange — and I can’t wait until it’s green again because that means it’s over and I’ve survived,”
After the Pumpkin House goes dark, he donates the collected pulp and decaying pumkins to farmers for animal feed, effectively recycling the Pumpkin House year in and year out.
The Pumpkin House is certainly not a money-making operation. “My pharmacy pays for it. The pumpkins themselves cost around $6,000. It’s sort of a way we say thank you to our community” said Griffith.
Then, there are those moments when people come up to him to and all the crazy work of manifesting the Pumpkin House comes into clear focus.
One older woman came up to him one year, her grandchildren scampering about, looking at the thousands of differently carved pumpkins illuminating the night.
“As you grow up you lose the wonderment of childhood,” she told Griffith. Visiting the Pumpkin House, she said she had that feeling again. “That old woman said ‘I can’t afford to take my grandchildren to a movie or even out to eat. They have two memories — one is the pumpkins and the other is me,’”
“I started crying, and I hugged her,” said Griffith. “Every once in awhile we have that moment when we feel how it affects someone.”
Meanwhile, he had more pumpkins to put out. He had to keep his pumpkin crew on pace to put out 500 or so a day, every day, before Halloween. The Pumpkin House was demanding more pumpkins.
“I don’t know how to stop it if I wanted to.”
Contact Douglas Imbrogno at 304-348-3017, e-mail email@example.com or folow him on Twitter at @douglaseye.