Mr. Pumpkin Carves a Tradition

Hometown Heroes, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on October 22, 2000

Nobody imagined the tradition Wally Thurow would start 46 years ago when he began putting decorated pumpkins on his front porch to delight trick-or-treaters.

Today, Thurowknown as Mr. Pumpkin in Sycamore, Ill.reigns as royalty over the towns annual Pumpkin Festival, serving as both an honorary grand marshal of the parade and a dignitary at the fall celebration in the northern Illinois town of 10,938.

Clad in black top hat and tails, Thurow pedals by on a giant orange high-wheeled bicycle, smiling and waving to spectators as he passes along the one-mile parade route.

The Pumpkin Festival is as big and popular as I always dreamed it would be, says Thurow, 73, who now lives in Slidell, La. The community spirit reflected by the festival has brought people to town. I love to see the enjoyment the kids get in creating pumpkins for the festival.

Thurow returns to Sycamore each fall, driving 950 miles to participate in the annual event. The festival, scheduled Oct. 25-29 this year, will once again feature a display of hundreds of uniquely decorated pumpkins on the DeKalb County Courthouse lawn. Prizes are awarded to the best creations in 10 categories.

By nature, hes a happy-go-lucky individual who had fun at Halloween and brought his enthusiasm to Sycamore, says Jerry Malmassari, who serves on the festivals advisory board. I dont think theres a year hes missed. He always makes the trek up here.

Thurow started decorating pumpkins while living in DeKalb, Ill., in the 1950s, creating festive scenes for trick-or-treaters to enjoy when they visited his home. Each year he added more to his display, working his way up to 35 pumpkins, and adding props like cornstalks, witches, and a coffin.

The cars would be backed up down the street. My neighbors would leave; I had so many trick-or-treaters, Thurow recalls. I really had a ball doing it.

When Thurow moved to Sycamore in 1961, he took his pumpkin passion one step further, suggesting a pumpkin festival to the local Lions Club, which was searching for a community project. But first he had to win the support of DeKalb County officials to use the courthouse grounds as a pumpkin display area.

The (county) board was worried about damage to the grass because of the pumpkins, so Wally said, Ill move every pumpkin on the (courthouse) lawn every night, and true to his word, he did, recalls Malmassari. It became a labor of love for him.

In addition to gaining the countys support, Thurow worked tirelessly to gain publicity and community assistance for the event. These components have played a major role in making the festivalprimarily its paradeone of the best-attended events in Illinois, Thurow says.

His title was created during the first festival in 1961, when the police chiefs daughter painted Thurows face on a pumpkin for the display and called it Mr. Pumpkin USA, and the name stuck.

Wally is certainly the cornerstone of the festival, says Tami Armstrong, Sycamore Chamber of Commerce executive director. Its really neat when he rides the bike bythen it really hits you that hes the guy who started the festival.

When Thurow moved to Louisiana in 1982, someone suggested taking over his role as Mr. Pumpkin. Mr. Pumpkins response: No way!

Thurow expects to travel to Sycamore again this year to fulfill his duties. Halloween wouldnt be Halloween, he says, without Mr. Pumpkin.