Flinging Fruitcake

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions
on December 13, 2011
Bryan Kelsen Jerry Pokorny fires a fruitcake from his homemade pneumatic cannon during the Great Fruitcake Toss in Manitou Springs, Colo.

Wearing military-style fatigues and an aviator cap, Jerry Pokorny, 64, stuffs a frozen fruitcake into a long, slim tube attached to an exercise bike. He checks printed satellite maps, twists the valve on a 10-gallon tank of compressed air and–kaboom!–the fruitcake sails across the high school football field in Manitou Springs, Colo. (pop. 4,992), past the goalposts and into the distance toward Pikes Peak.

Calling himself "a retired engineer with too much time on his hands," Pokorny built his wacky "Fruitcake of Mass Destruction" out of parts from a junkyard to join 75 contestants in the 2011 Manitou Springs Great Fruitcake Toss. The annual event celebrates the world's most reviled and underappreciated holiday dessert by challenging contestants to toss, hurl and fling fruitcakes through the air, occasionally obliterating the sugary artillery in the process.

"We wanted to end the tradition of people feeling guilty about throwing away their Christmas fruitcakes," says Michele Carvell, who got the idea for the event in 1996 while serving as director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce. "I've heard that some people actually like the stuff, but everyone I know throws it away."

Not in Manitou Springs, however. Fruitcakes in the picturesque mountain town are prized ammo, sent on flight paths by bow and arrow, slingshots made from tire tubes, 2,000-pound trebuchets, pneumatic potato guns, 10-foot cannons and water balloon launchers.

Pokorny worked for months on his unique contraption after the heavy-duty spring on the previous year's creation sprung off and knocked down his garage door, preventing him from entering in 2010. "He wasn't taking any chances [this year]," says wife Nancy, 68, about her husband's 2011 entry. "He even staged practice shots into the mountains behind our house. I did worry, though, when that school bus went by."

Pokorny's pneumatic gun, one of 22 devices in his division, captured the distance title at 1,400 feet-which explains why the competition was moved several years earlier from a downtown park to the high school campus on the outskirts of town.

"Every year, the devices kept getting better and the fruitcakes were going farther. Eventually, fruitcake shrapnel was landing on restaurant roofs and people's porches," explains Leslie Lewis, 52, Carvell's successor at the chamber of commerce.

"The fruitcake toss is always evolving," Carvell adds. "We've had fruitcake glamour competitions, ugliest fruitcake. We've played fruitcake football."

Held every January, the competition features divisions for tossing, distance, accuracy and catching. Last year's event began with a 16-gun salute in which fruitcakes were shot from potato guns. A choir from King Elementary School in Colorado Springs sang "Everlasting Fruitcake," a funny song about a holiday fruitcake that keeps getting passed along as a gift.

Contestants provide their own fruitcake or can rent one from the chamber of commerce for a dollar. Brothers Jim and Dave Vanderkolk, 46 and 44 respectively, of Woodland Park, Colo., whose trebuchet won flinging honors in the 2-pound division, loaded their fruitcake into the netting from their family's Christmas ham.

Matt Prichard, 20, a physics and engineering major at the University of Colorado in Boulder, propelled fruitcakes with an oversize red and gold catapult made from a boat winch and automobile springs. His dad, Wes, and sister, Emma, wearing plumed Roman helmets, stood in the field trying to catch the artillery with their hands.

The quirky festivities are consistent with the offbeat image of Manitou Springs, which hosts a 250-yard coffin race every Halloween, a Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo Festival during Mardis Gras, and a summertime marathon over Pikes Peak.

The fruitcake toss, however, remains the town's signature event.

"Flinging fruitcakes on a blistery winter day intrigues people from all over the world, but it's really just a way to introduce people to our quaint, charming, funky little Victorian town," says resident Floyd O'Neil, 56.