As a boy, Jason Snyder didn’t just want just any pumpkins for Halloween. He wanted giant ones.
But, “mom and dad wouldn’t spring for the big ones,” he said. “We got the basketball-, the Jack-O-Lantern-sized ones. They wouldn’t let us get the monsters.”
Hamilton’s Operation Pumpkin festival has that dashed childhood wish to thank for the fact it exists.
Snyder and his wife, Tammy, have been named Hamilton’s citizens of the year. They will be celebrated at the sold-out Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting and dinner Friday evening.
Snyder, who grew up near Canton in Louisville, Ohio, with about 9,000 people, started growing the gargantuan gourds himself when his youngest daughter, Carrington, now 17, was young.
The largest one they grew, by official weight, was 917 pounds. They would travel to places like Barnesville, in eastern Ohio, and Canfield, near Youngstown.
The Snyders moved to this area eight years ago because Jason worked as a project manager at the time for Louisville-based Coon Restoration, which has restored such downtown buildings as the Historic Mercantile Lofts at 228-236 High St., the Robinson Schwenn Buildong at 221 High St. and the former JournalNews building.
The 30-somethings now have their own general-contracting company, called Tamz Construction, which Tammy, an interior designer, owns.
Two years after moving here, six years ago, they launched the first Operation Pumpkin, despite having two young girls at the time. Avery now is 8, while Burke is 7.
“We started because we used to grow the pumpkins, and then we had to drive quite a ways to enter the pumpkins in the weigh-offs,” he said. Also, looking out his office window at the time along High Street, “there were all the empty storefronts,” he said.
The large-pumpkin weigh-offs tended to be in attractive, historic downtowns, and Hamilton’s historic architecture itself was beautiful, although very under-utilized at the time, the couple said.
“One night I said to her, ‘What do you think about starting a pumpkin festival in downtown Hamilton?’” Jason said.
She added: “And in my mind, I thought, ‘This will be fun to get out of the house a little bit.’ Because I was at home with two small kids. Little did I know, I’d have to put them in daycare, go find sponsors, knocking on doors, not knowing hardly anybody…”
“We had no idea what was involved with a festival,” he said.
The first year’s festival drew about 15,000 visitors, and there were about 10 large-pumpkin entries. Lately, the event draws 40,000-50,000 people, with 35-50 pumpkin entries from places like Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina and Missouri. Visitors came from at least 18 states, and create a significant bump in Hamilton sales on event weekends, according to post-event surveys of businesses. More than 250 volunteers helped at the most recent event.
Scott Timmer, treasurer for the event, said, “Without their tireless efforts, personal contributions and overall passion for both the city of Hamilton and the festival, Operation Pumpkin would have never achieved the success it enjoys today.”
The two recently stepped down as chairpeople to have more family time.
Across much of Ohio, cities regularly close down their main streets through downtown for several days to host such events as bratwurst festivals, popcorn festivals, pumpkin shows and art events.
“We had a lot of push-back here in town,” Jason said. “Operation Pumpkin could have been a year older. We tried a year prior to this to get started, and we were told ‘no way’ could High Street be shut down.”
Jason said Joshua Smith was not yet city manager in Hamilton when they first approached the city about such an event.
One of Operation Pumpkin’s unique qualities is the fact that before it happens, every fourth-grader in Hamilton (from public and private schools) receives a pumpkin — not a giant one — and art classes decorate them and put on display at the event.
Many longtime Hamiltonians also have been charmed by memories of the old Operation Pumpkin that used to happen several decades ago downtown: Crowds would be shoulder-to-shoulder at those Halloween events, where children could win prizes like bicycles and televisions.
To help with the festival, become a sponsor or vendor, or learn more about it, go to www.operation-pumpkin.org.
The Snyders are both from the Canton, Ohio, area. She’s from Green, a suburban area with more than 25,000 residents. They’re now settled in Hamilton’s Dayton Lane Historic District.
“I feel more at home here — and Hamilton has what? 62,000 people? — than I did in my original hometown of 8,900 people,” Jason said. “That says a lot. We truly appreciate it.”
There’s been a small downside with Operation Pumpkin for Jason, however.
“I used to grow giant pumpkins, but ever since we started the event, we don’t have the time,” he said.
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