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Sycamore Pumpkin Festival has evolved over decades

Published: Friday, Oct. 18, 2013 3:04 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013 12:59 a.m. CDT

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SYCAMORE – Susan Lloyd likes to wear her cowboy hat to the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival. Not only is the hat covered with pins she’s collected from the Pumpkin Festival over the years, it features a signature of festival founder Wally Thurow. Her oldest son, Bill, scored Thurow’s autograph about 12 years ago, much to her delight.

Lloyd, 71, moved to Sycamore in 1957 and started attending the festival with her children when it began in 1962.

“I thought it was great because all the kids got involved and they enjoyed it,” she said.

That part of the festival hasn’t changed over the decades, said Jerry Malmassari, president of the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival committee. This year’s festival begins today with a free pumpkin distribution for children, with the opening ceremony – including the cutting of a giant cake – starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday on North Maple Street near the county courthouse in downtown Sycamore.

The festival still is all about providing Halloween-themed activities for children and their families.

“Wally Thurow’s idea from the beginning was giving kids a way to express themselves on Halloween instead of playing tricks,” said Ed Kuhn, a member of the member Sycamore Lions Club.

Instead of soaping windows or egging houses, the children could be decorating pumpkins and displaying them on the courthouse lawn.

Thurow, affectionately called “Mr. Pumpkin,” used to display decorated pumpkins on his own lawn in the mid-1950s for Halloween, according to the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival website.

Halloween was his favorite holiday and, as a Sycamore Lions Club member, he suggested the club host a pumpkin-carving contest for the whole city.

While the festival still has a youthful focus, its changes are apparent to those who have been attending for decades.

Bill Lloyd, 51, remembers when he was about 8, the participants in the festival’s parade used to toss candy to spectators, which Malmassari said is not done now for safety. Lloyd said the parade seems to include more local politicians.

The parade was small when it began in 1962, with costumed children, a police car and a high school band marching through town, Malmassari said. Now the parade has more than 100 participants and at least 10 bands.

Kuhn said he doesn’t remember the festival having a carnival in the late 1970s, which was when he moved to Sycamore from Naperville. His first festival experiences reminded him of his childhood in the 1950s.

“I thought it was like how I remembered growing up in Naperville,” he said. “… Everybody knew everybody, and they would come downtown to meet friends.”

Kuhn joined the Sycamore Lions in the early 1980s. Since then, more nonprofit vendors have started participating, with more than 30 on board for this year. With the vendors being nonprofits, the proceeds go right back into the community, he said.

But the festival also helps the local economy by enticing people to shop at stores or eat at restaurants. “Just having something like the Pumpkin Festival in your city generates thousands and thousands of dollars for businesses,” Malmassari said.

This year’s festival will be the second without a visit from Thurow, who died in 2012. Although he moved to Louisiana in the early 1980s, he always returned to Sycamore when the festival began, Malmassari said. He was well-known for wearing a black top hat and riding an penny farthing bicycle, with the large front wheel and a small one in back.

Now a Wally Thurow tribute committee has come together to keep his memory alive by raising funds to place a life-sized statue of Thurow in downtown Sycamore. About $21,000 of the $75,000 goal had been raised through August, tribute committee member Riley Oncken said.

Committee members plan to solicit donations at this year’s festival. To make a donation for the Wally Thurow tribute statue, email mrpumpkinstatue@gmail.com.

“It would give kids who never had the chance to meet Wally to stand by him or have their picture taken by his statue,” Malmassari said.

Can you help?

To make a donation for the Wally Thurow tribute statue, email mrpumpkinstatue@gmail.com.

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