A contest that scares crows, draws crowds

Hundreds of people are busy these days doing their part for crow control and expressing their wildest harvesttime fantasies. They're designing entries for the Fifth Annual Great Scarecrow Contest in Nut Tree, Calif. - the largest gathering of ''garden guardians'' in the world.

Everyone is welcome and admission to the event is free. Lovers of folk art, families, and photographers throng to see the latest in field fashion. Scarecrows have traveled from as far away as Texas. They'll arrive at the Nut Tree restaurant grounds - 55 miles east of San Francisco on Interstate 80 - for this year's contest next Sunday and reside in the patch through the end of the month, with live music and entertainment on the weekends.

Last year, nearly 300 folk sculptures decorated the outdoor gallery - a three-acre pumpkin patch with straw-strewn pathways and towering cornstalks. Individuals, families, clubs, and classroom groups fashioned figures from burlap , hay, tin cans, wood, papier-mache, vegetables, bones, and feathers. They competed in two age groups and three categories (humorous, contemporary, traditional) for $4,000 in cash and merchandise prizes. ''Crow White and the Seven You Know Whos'' were present. ''Amelia Scareheart'' waited for judges in her parked airplane, while ''Medusa'' and ''The Statue of Liberty'' exchanged stony stares. ''Mr. Referee'' (with built-in sound) officiated a football game between the Cobs and the Crows before a grandstand of cheering fresh vegetables. Thousands of visitors greeted ''The Royal Family'' - Prince Charles, Lady Diana, and the baby, dressed in formal attire and sporting pumpkin heads.

The Great Scarecrow Contest literally grew out of a pumpkin patch on the Nut Tree Ranch. Seeds planted in 1978 survived the first season ''unprotected.'' The following year Phil Glashoff, ranch foreman and a part-time sculptor, assembled, with the help of a few ranch hands, whimsical collages and gave them a home in the patch. Nut Tree's design department contributed more-refined models. They scared the crows and attracted spectators. The field assumed the look of a mime theatrical set - motionless actors posed on a carpet of golden spheres. And a contest was born to inspire and perpetuate a 3,600-year-old folk art expression that began with the Egyptians.

Pop personalities and issues have naturally dated each event. Beginning with ''E.T.,'' ''Khomeini'' (''Crowmeanie'') and ''Medflies'' led to ''Miss Piggy,'' ''Dolly Parton,'' and ''Punk Rockers.'' ''Mr. Taxpayer'' would be appropriate any year. When the viewer pushed a foot pedal, his coat flew open, showing nothing left after taxes but his underwear. Then there are the timeless characters - the storybook heroes, villains, fine art reproductions, and original art forms like ''The Wizard of Oz,'' ''Frankenstein'' (''Frankencrow'') , Grant Wood's ''American Gothic,'' and an early American farming family bearing the message ''Families are something to crow about.''

Scarecrows are only a part of a month-long harvest festival in the Nut Tree's Pumpkin Patch which stretches from Sept. 29 until Halloween. Forty acres of ranch-grown pumpkins stock the harvest market, with pumpkin carvers sculpturing daily. Buy a pumpkin, they'll carve it for you. Linda Nelson, who's been called a ''natural cutup,'' has animated hundreds of Nut Tree pumpkins and transformed scores of blimp-shaped pink banana squash into animal forms.

''The carving is free,'' Linda explains, ''but we charge a dollar for cleaning. An ice cream scoop works best for this. Sugar and flour scoops make great eyes, and I get my best noses with zucchini corers. You can always use a battery of sharp paring knives, but the real fun starts when you design your own tools.''

Linda takes an ordinary empty tin can, shapes an exotic expression in the rim , and ends up with something like a cookie cutter to impress her next facial feature. With a bounty of fresh vegetables she creates accessories and additional appendages. Radish earrings and gourd hats become high fashion with cauliflower ears. Blue Indian corn works fine for eyes. Coiffures range from traditional styles in corn silk and husks to the latest in punk - a fresh green pineapple top.

Nut Tree's scarecrow contest neatly fits in the historical chronology of the landmark restaurant of the same name near San Francisco. It all began with Josiah Allison, who left his Iowa farm in 1851, headed west seeking gold, and decided the real treasure of California was in the climate and soil. He settled in the Sacramento Valley along the Emigrant Trail, planted a fruit ranch - and one black walnut his niece had picked up on the bank of Arizona's Gila River. Three generations later, on July 3, 1921, the Nut Tree was born as a ranch fruit stand under the great black walnut tree and became the pioneer of roadside merchandising and food service.

Today, 63 years later, eight lanes of Interstate 80 have replaced the Emigrant Trail and the Nut Tree has grown into a large restaurant with an airport and post office. But the Nut Tree family still generates that original creative spirit. And the scarecrow contest is one place you can go each year and find thousands of smiling, happy people of all ages. This alone is reason enough to make the pilgrimage.

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