The fine art of pumpkin and gourd carving is thought to have originated—or at least become popularized—in Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, where Halloween saw the Festival of Samhain, and the spirits of the dead were thought to rise alongside monsters and fairies to terrorize the living. In these rural communities, jack-o’-lanterns served a functional purpose to ward off evil.
Of course, evil spirits and fairies seem to abound less often these days, and Halloween is less about impending doom and more about dressing children up as superheroes and “Star Wars” characters and plying them with candy.
In turn, jack-o’-lanterns have become sources of tremendous fun, icons of spooky Halloween revelry and, in general, no longer serve what could be perceived as a “functional” purpose.
At least, in most contexts. For Swiftsure Ranch in Bellevue, jack-o’-lanterns form the backbone of a major autumn fundraiser: the Blazing Pumpkins Fall Festival.
Swiftsure Ranch is a nonprofit therapeutic equestrian center that operates just south of Bellevue. Across the ranch’s 191 acres of land, Swiftsure’s herd of 17 horses, its small but dedicated staff and its strong ensemble of volunteers work together to provide equestrian-based therapy for all manner of physical and psychological ailments.
To help the valley get in the mood for Halloween, this vast swath of land will transform into a gothic, creepy, ghastly (and entirely family-friendly) wonderland.
On Saturday, Oct. 19, from 5-9 p.m., Swiftsure will host its third annual Blazing Pumpkins Fall Festival. Bounce houses, carnival games, food and drink, raffles, pumpkin carving, an apple-launching device and a mechanical bull are all major attractions for this year’s festival.
Its pièce-de-résistance, however, is its impressive host of jack-o’-lanterns, the titular blazing pumpkins. During the festival, Swiftsure’s nearly 200-acre property will be blanketed in more than 200 lit, unique, hand-carved jack-o’-lanterns.
Atkinsons’ Market, one of the major event sponsors, is donating almost 300 pumpkins to Swiftsure for the autumnal fête. Leading up to Blazing Pumpkins, about half of the gourds will be carved by school children in the community.
The other half, about 150 pumpkins, will be available for attendees to the event to carve themselves. All of these will be prepped ahead of time, courtesy of a pumpkin-gutting party on Friday, Oct. 18—the day before the main festival. Swiftsure will mainly depend upon its committed volunteer base for the Friday prepping, but interested community members are welcome to drop in and lend a hand.
Those who wish to gut some gourds next week can reach out to Molly Boomer, Swiftsure’s volunteer coordinator, for details. One can reach Boomer by email at email@example.com or by calling the ranch at 208-578-9111.
The role of volunteer coordinator falls under the much broader umbrella of Boomer’s primary title: operations director. In her role at the ranch, she must oversee day-to-day operations as well as take the reins for such major undertakings as Blazing Pumpkins, but the added effort is more than worth it.
“It’s a great opportunity to raise awareness for what Swiftsure is and what we do in the community,” she said. “And it’s a family experience. Lots of kids come. We have something for all ages.”
In addition to those above-listed activities and offerings—and the army of jack-o’-lanterns—this year’s Blazing Pumpkins festival will boast a new event: the Horsepower Parade.
“This year we’ll feature something we haven’t done before with the Horsepower Parade. Our therapeutic horses will be painted and dressed up for Halloween, and will parade the grounds,” Boomer explained. “This will give us a great opportunity to tell the crowd how special they are, how impactful the work they do is and what it takes for us to take care of them. Most importantly, though, the community will get to meet the horses.”
To mount such a largescale event is a lofty enterprise, which has required months of planning and the concerted efforts of several dozen individuals.
“It’s taken the work of about 70 volunteers to put on this festival,” Boomer said. “You couldn’t ask for a better group of volunteers. I have so much gratitude for them and all the amazing work they’ve done. We really couldn’t do it without them.”
Last year, more than 600 people attended the festival. Providing entertainment, food and Halloween spirit for that many people requires a tremendous amount of effort and coordination, but those are things Swiftsure has in abundance.
Together, Swiftsure’s staff and volunteers will present a wealth of fun and seasonally appropriate activities during the third annual Blazing Pumpkins Fall Festival, but undeniably the most alluring attraction is the flickering glow of the lit jack-o’-lanterns after dark. The sun is forecast to set at around 7 p.m. on Oct. 19. By 9 p.m. when the festival wraps up, it should be completely dark except for the faces and designs carved into the pumpkins.
“This valley has a rich supply of Halloween parties and events, but I think what really separates ours from the others is this beautiful display after it gets dark,” Boomer said. “That gets you in the mood for Halloween.”
Swiftsure Ranch is at the end of Calypso Lane, a right turn off Highway 75 heading south from Bellevue. Tickets are just $10 for adults and $5 for children over 5. Younger attendees will be admitted free of charge.
Halloween- and autumn-lovers will have ample opportunity to get into the spooky spirit, with pumpkin-carving, lots of games, free s’mores, pressed apple cider and much more, all to support the charitable work of Swiftsure Ranch.
Visit swiftsureranch.org for more details.