Punkin' Chuckin' in the Pumpkin Capital

Punkin' Chuckin' in the Pumpkin Capital

Whoosh... A giant blast of air expels a pumpkin from an 80 foot-long tube. Traveling at nearly the speed of sound, the pumpkin follows a graceful arc towards the horizon. It will land with a splat nearly a mile away. This is an odd sport called punkin' chuckin'. Morton, Pumpkin capital of the world, is home to the world's largest pumpkin cannery. It is also home to the Aludium Q-36 Pumpkin Modulator, the world record holder for the longest pumpkin-chuck. In 1998 the Q36 fired a pumpkin 4,491 feet to establish the existing world record.

Pumpkins are big business in Morton. "Eighty five percent of the world's canned pumpkin is produced in Morton," explains Susan Pyles of the Morton Chamber of Commerce. "In 1978 the Governor declared Morton to be the Pumpkin Capitol of the World."

Right in the middle of Morton sits the pumpkin processing plant. Like a feudal castle, the cannery is the hub of the village. The rest of the town crowds around the chain link fence that serves as the castle wall. It seems no accident that the Morton exit from 1-74 bypasses the Caterpillar plant to end directly in front of the cannery gate. An ornate sign proclaims, "Nestle Welcomes You to Morton, Home of Libby's Pumpkin." In addition to the cannery, businesses sport names like the Pumpkin Patch Gift Shop, Pumpkin Place Child Care and Pumpkin Postal & Packaging.

In 1996, punkin' chuckin' was introduced as one of the events at the Morton Pumpkin Festival. In its simplest form, punkin' chuckin' is a contest to see who can throw a pumpkin the farthest. Competition is divided into several categories. Some simply throw a pumpkin by hand. Other classes involve giant mechanical devices. Mechanical chuckers may be centrifugal powered machines, catapults or air powered canons.

Modern day pumpkin-chucking began in 1986 at a festival in Lewes, Del. Lewes claims their contest to be the "World Series of Punkin' Chuckin'." Lewes may have done it first but Morton holds the world record for the longest chuck.

"I recently heard someone else say that they were the pumpkin capital of the world. Just because they grow pumpkins in other places doesn't make them the capital," says Pyles. "No one else even comes close to matching Libby's for the amount of pumpkin produced." And no one else can chuck a pumpkin as far as Mortonites.

The sport that was founded in Delaware was taken to a new level by the Parker family of Morton. Mike Badgerow, director of the Morton Chamber of Commerce, said, "The first year, we had an 1,100-foot span for people to throw things and the longest (chuck) was something like 450 feet. Then just as the sun was setting, these guys roll up and shoot one off into the twilight. We couldn't even find it. Who knows where it went."

The chuck that shook up the Morton Pumpkin Festival was made by the Aludium Q-36 Pumpkin Modulator, a giant contraption that looks like the results of cross breeding a howitzer with parts borrowed from the International Space Station.

One hundred feet long and tipping the scale at 36,000 pounds, the Q-36 is really a giant pea shooter. An 80-foot long tube is connected to a 1,800-gallon compressed air tank. "We can run up to a maximum pressure of 125 PSI," says Matt Parker, one of the designers of the Q-36. Matt punches numbers into a calculator and announces, "At atmospheric pressure that would be 18,000 cubic feet of air." That is the amount of air in a 2,250-square-foot house - all of it just to blow a 10 pound pumpkin out of an 80-foot tube. "Muzzle velocity is 1,000 feet per second," says Matt. Again the calculator springs into action. "It's traveling 681 miles per hour when it leaves the tube, but it loses velocity quickly."

Matt Parker is co-owner of Parker Fabrication, a familyowned machine shop in Morton's new industrial park. In addition to Parker, the crew of the Q-36 consists of Chuck Heerde, James Knepp, Rod Litwiller and Steve Young.

"The guys have had a lot of fun with it," says Bonnie Parker, Matt's mother. Bonnie is the office staff of the family business. She also is the chief cheerleader for the pumpkin-chuckers and serves as the archivist of the Q-36's exploits. Framed newspaper articles detailing the Q-36's world record shot adorn her office wall. In addition to the local papers, her collection includes a picture from the front page of the Wall Street Journal and an article from the London Times.

The entire Parker family takes their punkin' chuckin' seriously. "We don't have grandchildren, so this pumpkin chucker is our baby," explains Bonnie. When asked about the cost to build such a contraption, Pat Parker, Matt's father, is quick to point out, "It's not about sponsorship or advertising or money. It's about people putting their ideas together to solve a problem. A lot more people contributed to this than the five who have their names on the official entry form."

Adapted from the Morton Pumpkin Festival supplement
of the Morton-Times News September 5, 2001


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