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The Great and Mysterious Pumpkins of Plymouth State University

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Sean Hurley
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Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin may not be rising in the pumpkin patch this year – nor airing on TV this Halloween – but two great pumpkins can be seen high atop the twin spires of Rounds Hall at Plymouth State University.

For almost 50 years, locals have wondered how the pumpkins get there each October. NHPR’s Sean Hurley went to Plymouth to find out.

Editor's note: We highly recommend listening to this story...and all of Sean Hurley's stories.  

Freshman Raymond Asquino walks through campus in a cold drizzle and stops to look up at the pumpkins impaled on the spires of Rounds Hall.

“When it first happened I was really curious,” he tells me. “I was really trying to like ask around, figure out how it happens, but no one really knows. I think there's a little hatch at the top and they pop out of the clock tower and just put them on the spire. I can't see the hatch. I've been trying to figure out how they to do it. Hi, Rachel!”

And with that, Raymond Asquino loses all interest in pumpkins and runs off after Rachel. He will never solve the riddle at this rate.

It was as the Rounds Hall clock tower bells spoke of the 2 o’clockness of the hour that Jane Weber, the Director of the University’s Writing Center, stopped by to pick up Raymond Asquino’s hastily discarded wonder.

“Is it helicopters? Is it drones? Is it outer space aliens?” Weber speculates. “I don’t know. In October, they magically appear every year and I can't imagine how they get there.  It’s an active secret, I would say.”

I meet with someone who knows this “active secret” in one of the classrooms at Rounds Hall. Louise McCormack is the President of the Plymouth Historical Society. “And it was two Fridays ago,” McCormack recalls, “I looked up and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ I did my double take. They're there again.”

McCormack says she knows about the secret “Great Pumpkin Society” and knows how they get the pumpkins up there.

But then she takes it all back and changes the subject. Did I know that Robert Frost taught in this very room in 1912 and likely looked out this very window?

“Now pretend it's a gorgeous day out there,” McCormack says. “The sun is there and you've got the foliage there. That's what he saw. Amazing, just absolutely amazing.”

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Credit Sean Hurley
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Louise McCormack looking out the window in the classroom Robert Frost taught in.

McCormack is working on a book on the shared history of the town and school.  Researching the mystery of the great pumpkins tradition, which began in 1975, she was given a tour of the clock tower itself. 

There’s no hatch up there, Raymond Asquino. Hi Rachel. But there are two floors. “We went up a little bit to the next level,” McCormack says.

“From the outside, you see the beautiful faces there, north, south, east and west of the clock. Now we're on the inside. I'm looking up above and there's huge beams there. They look like they're gouged out.”

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Credit Louise McCormack
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Once the Great Pumpkin Clan...now the Great Pumpkin Society.

Those gouges in the beams, it turns out, are the carved names of past members of the Great Pumpkin Society. “I've been told that there's a book up there in the eaves…” McCormack says.  The book allegedly lists the names of those in the secret Society and includes “the history of the Great Pumpkin Society,’ McCormack says, “as well as some anecdotal stories.”

But McCormack has never found that book.

And when I ask her again how they get the pumpkins up onto the twin spires, she tells me instead that ghosts have been seen silhouetted behind those clock faces. “So they have the recordings of ghosts here,” she says. 

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Credit Louise McCormack
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The clock tower bell.

And did I know that the bell in the clock tower above us was made by associates of Paul Revere? And what about the secret that lays below our very feet?

“Do you know the tunnels of Plymouth?” she asks and then explains. “When the normal school girls were here, they could actually go underneath and they wouldn't have to be bothered with any type of inclement weather.”

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Credit Sean HUrley
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The statue of Robert Frost with pumpkins behind and above.

It seems we won't be finding out today how the pumpkins get up there. Even the secret about who knows the secret is itself a secret. But that, McCormack says, is the secret. “It brings people together,” she says.

“It's something to talk about. And I smile. We need to smile right now. That's healthy.” And while they may not be sprinkled with the fairy dust of Linus’s Great Pumpkin nearly rising in that sincerest of pumpkin patches, the mystery of Plymouth’s Great Pumpkins is enough.

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at shurley@nhpr.org.

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