The Great Pumpkin Prank — a piece of Cornell history

An odd sight — a pumpkin sits impaled atop Cornell University'’s McGraw Tower on Oct. 8, 1997. (Photo provided by Cornell University)

McGraw Hall, Cornell University’s first building, is certainly the most recognizable symbol of the university and arguably one of the state’s most iconic buildings. Built in 1891, it is named for Jennie McGraw, a close family friend of university co-founder, Ezra Cornell. McGraw Hall’s clock tower, which houses the 21-bell Cornell Chimes, played three times a day and heard all over campus, stands 173 feet tall, with an extremely steep 20-foot-high tiled roof-spire. It holds a commanding presence from vantage points all around the city of Ithaca.

So, on the morning of Oct. 8, 1997, Cornell students, faculty and staff were baffled when they awoke to find a rather large pumpkin, estimated to have weighed 60 pounds, impaled upon the spire atop the tower.

Everyone was certain the grandiose gourd would fall on its own within days, maybe weeks. But, the pumpkin stood steadfast, roosting upon the precarious pinnacle throughout the fall and winter until, finally, on March 13, 1998, Provost Don M. Randel ascended McGraw Tower in a crane-hoisted bucket to retrieve the, by then, partially putrefied, partially petrified pumpkin from its perch.

The pumpkin persevered. The infamous fruit’s freeze-dried remains were placed on display in the Visitors’ Center, then used in another prank, positioned among a display of brains in the University’s Psychology Department.

By some accounts, Cornell horticulturalists planted some of the seeds at the foot of the clocktower the following spring.

The perpetrator remains unknown.

Pumpkin production in New York

Pumpkins are an important crop in New York and across the country. Purchases continue through fall, although demand peaks at Halloween.

New York State now ranks eighth in U.S. pumpkin production. In 2014, N.Y. ranked third. Total pumpkin production in the U.S. in 2016, was 16,070,000 pounds, with a value of $207,659,000. New York state pumpkin growers produced 3,220,000 pounds of pumpkins, with a value of $20,500,000, on 3,100 acres of land. Nearly all New York-produced-pumpkins are grown for fresh-market use and are frequently sold through farmers markets, nursery centers, and roadside stands.

The pumpkin industry is a highly variable one. Mature fruit can range in weight from a few ounces (ornamentals) to several hundred pounds (jack-o’-lantern varieties). Pumpkins are susceptible to many different diseases, the most prevalent being Powdery Mildew, Downey Mildew and Phytophthora blight. In the last decade, plant breeders and seed companies have released a multitude of varieties resistant to Powdery Mildew, which are widely used by growers.

Several different viruses can cause plants to produce fruit of poor quality or not produce fruit at all. Aphids are the primary vectors of these viruses. Striped Cucumber Beetles and Squash bugs are also significant insect pests.

One of America’s Oldest Crops

Pumpkins are one of America’s oldest native crops; cultivated by the indigenous people of North and South America long before the Europeans arrived. Pumpkin seeds have been found at archaeological sites throughout Mexico, Central and South America, and the United States; including sites in the American southwest dating back six thousand years.

It’s believed that the flesh of most wild pumpkins was too bitter to eat and, therefore, only the seeds were consumed. Cultivation changed that, eventually making every part of the plant; seeds, flesh, flowers, and leaves; palatable. Over time, pumpkins, along with all types of squash, were eaten baked, roasted, boiled and added to soups.

Upon the Europeans’ arrival, the natives introduced the colonialist settlers to pumpkins, which became an important food source to them, as well; crucial, in fact, to their survival during the harsh winter months.

In 1749, Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist who explored the wilds of New York and Canada wrote, “”Some (Indians) mix flour with the pumpkins when making porridge. They often make pudding or even pie or a kind of tart out of them.”

Pumpkins, Agritourism, and CCE

Pumpkins have become essential to areas of the state that depend on agritourism (agricultural tourism). Cornell Cooperative Extension works with agritourism entrepreneurs, community leaders, and rural economic development and tourism professionals across the region and throughout the state to promote and develop agritourism-related small businesses (i.e. farm stands, u-pick operations, farm bed and breakfasts, regional food hubs), events (i.e. farmers markets, harvest festivals), and initiatives (i.e. Adirondack Harvest, cuisine trails).

Are pumpkins berries?

Some people will tell you that pumpkins are berries. They base their conclusion on the rather vague definition of a berry; a fruit derived from a single ovary with many seeds in fleshy pulp. What the definition is actually saying is that berries have seeds distributed throughout the flesh, rather than in a central pit area, like apples, pears, or grapes (which are not berries). The bottom line; pumpkins are not berries.