A California town's claim to gourd greatness

Half Moon Bay isn't the kind of place you'd expect to be the Pumpkin Capital of the World

Even here in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is the unlikeliest of sights. Naked animal-rights protesters locking themselves in cages along Market Street, we understand. Blocks-long parades of drag queens that make Carmen Miranda look positively homespun don't get a second look.

But a 1,229 lb. pumpkin might as well be a visitor from deep space.

Yet that is autumn in Half Moon Bay. For 11 months of the year, this quiet coastal hamlet cupped in the isolation of the Coast Range - the Bay Area at slightly lower r.p.m.

Come October, however, the town transforms into a Midwest pumpkin patch - on the pacific.

This is the self-styled "Pumpkin Capital of the World," where the fall landscape resembles a Seurat canvas of orange dots, where pumpkin ale and pumpkin sausages are ordinary fare, and where gigantic gourds are enough to set the heart aflutter.

"Everybody looks forward to this," says Christianna Lawarre, a former Half Moon Bay resident who still comes back once a week. "It helps other people know about Half Moon Bay."

After all, how could you miss a pumpkin that weighs more than a full-grown steer? There it sits in a sparse, concrete square at the south end of Main Street, a massive orange anchor that is seemingly scaring off anything within a 30-foot radius.

It's a serious pumpkin for serious business - coveted seeds from championship pumpkins can go for hundreds of dollars, and the winner of Monday's Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off here captured $6,145 for his grower.

Accordingly, it will ride triumphantly through town in the Great Pumpkin Parade Saturday. There is no Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Queen. Just this misshapen monster.

Add the pumpkin pancakes, the white chocolate pumpkin fudge, the pumpkin ice cream - as well as the estimated 250,000 visitors to this weekend's Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival - and the tiny town's big claims begin to sound more plausible.

Former mayor Al Adraveno can remember the first time he made the boast. Back in the early 1970s, the central Ohio town of Circleville challenged Half Moon Bay for the title of Pumpkin Capital of the World, and the two held a weigh-off over the phone.

"Their's was a little bigger," he concedes, but no matter. Half Moon Bay hasn't always attracted the biggest pumpkins - the world-record is a 1,446 lb. Canadian behemoth - but it has attracted the most attention.

"Nova Scotia might grow the biggest pumpkins, but who can get to Nova Scotia?" says pumpkin-grower John Muller, known around town simply as "Farmer John."

As a teenager, he once took a pickup truck full of pumpkins out onto Highway 1 and sold $40 worth - at 25 cents apiece. It's been a tradition around here since the 1930s, when, according to town legend, one motorist stopped by and asked if he could buy the pumpkins a local farmer was growing for cattle food.

During the next 70 years, Half Moon Bay has become the Bay Area's barometer. In a place where evergreen stands of cypress and pine belie any change in the season, and only the return of rain signals the tilting of the planet, Half Moon Bay's handful of farmers have become the calendar for a seasonless metropolis.

"You come to Half Moon Bay for the pumpkins - it's like a holiday season," says Cindy Petsche, who has come from San Mateo with her family for the pumpkins. "I used to come here when I was little, and hopefully our kids will bring their kids."

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