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Nothing is more emblematic of autumn than pumpkins. So what could be more autumnal than visiting a pumpkin festival in the nation's heartland? The following three towns hold pumpkin fests every fall, and each one is situated near a medium-sized Midwestern city that offers other interesting things to do.
159 East Franklin St.
The annual Circleville Pumpkin Show is the oldest and largest food festival in Ohio, dating back to 1903 and drawing crowds of up to half a million people. It begins on the third Wednesday of October and runs through Saturday -- that's the 16th through the 19th this year.
There are contests for the biggest pumpkin (the winner routinely weighs in at over 500 pounds), pumpkin pie-eating, pumpkin-tossing, and the like, as well as parades, a beauty contest (the winner is crowned Miss Pumpkin), and, of course, loads of pumpkin-based foods for sale.
Should you tire of pumpkins, Circleville is only about half an hour south of Columbus, where you can tour the state capitol, check out the COSI science museum (333.W.Broad St. Columbus, Ohio), or scream your lungs out while braving the rides at Wyandot Lake Adventure Park (10101 Riverside Drive, Powell, Ohio).
Morton Pumpkin Festival
15 W. Jefferson, Morton, Illinois
Held from Wednesday through Saturday in mid-September -- from the 11th through the 14th this year -- the Morton Pumpkin Festival draws about 100,000 people annually to the self-proclaimed "Pumpkin Capital of the World."
More Autumn Drives
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There are assorted pumpkin-related foods, exhibits, and competitions, including a cooking contest (the local Libby's pumpkin-processing plant is the largest such facility in the nation, so each recipe must include at least half a cup of Libby's canned pumpkin), as well as carnival rides and musical entertainment. There's also the bizarre "punkin chuckin' " contest, in which local inventors build mechanical contraptions to see who can fire a pumpkin projectile the farthest. Yes, really.
If all those pumpkins get to be too much, Morton is within spittin' distance (and probably punkin chuckin' distance) of Peoria, which is one of America's leading small-city testing grounds for regional theater and live entertainment (hence the old cliche, "But will it play in Peoria?"). You can get more information on the assorted theater facilities and current performance schedules from the local tourism bureau (456 Fulton St., Suite 300, Peoria, Illinois). Meanwhile, Peoria also gives you a chance to learn about black history at the African American Museum Hall of Fame (309 Du Sable St., Proctor Center Complex, Peoria, Illinois; 309-673-2206) or pick your own fruit and wander the corn maze at the Apple Blossom Farm (9809 N. Route 91, Peoria, Illinois).
This festival, called Pumpkinfest, had its origins in 1989, when a local farmer named Tom Norlin generated some publicity by attempting to grow a massive pumpkin that he hoped would tip the scales at 1,000 pounds. He fell a bit short of that goal, but the weigh-off was such a hit that it became an annual event, and the rest of the festival grew around it.
The event is held annually on the first weekend of October -- that's the 4th through the 6th this year. With crowds averaging about 10,000 people, this festival is a bit smaller than the ones in Morton and Circleville, but the pumpkin spirit here is just as palpable, with assorted pumpkin-related foods, exhibits, and contests. And in 2000, they even had a 1,000-pound pumkin, just like Tom Norlin originally envisioned. A Sunday-morning pumpkin-pancake breakfast provides a nice capper to the weekend.
As is the case with the other two pumpkin festivals, Anamosa lies just outside a medium-sized city -- in this case, Cedar Rapids, which offers two excellent regional history museums: the History Center (615 1st Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa) and the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (30 16th Avenue SW, Cedar Rapids, Iowa). You can also tour the historic Queen Anne-style Brucemore mansion and its beautiful 26-acre estate (2160 Linden Drive SE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa) or check out the surprisingly vibrant Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (410 Third Avenue SE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa), whose permanent holdings include the world's largest collection of work by famed American Gothic artist Grant Wood. For more information on what to do in Cedar Rapids, contact the local tourism bureau (119 1st Ave SE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa).