Christopher Hibben and giant gourd

Our Journey to the World's Largest Gourd Festival
by Christopher Hibben

In the cool darkness of an early October evening, four members of the Richmond Indigenous Gourd Orchestra walked among heaps and rows of dried gourds in a field in deepest central Ohio. The gourds, dramatically lit by a few spotlights, were lying like twisted limbs on the grass of the Morrow County Fairgrounds. A few figures sorted and piled the gourds in preparation for the World's Largest Gourd Show the following morning.

The four of us, Barry, Emma, Arthur the Gourd- Meister and I, had driven over ten hours from Richmond to Mt. Gilead, Ohio to join the festival and play our gourd music. We could feel the anticipation and excitement in the town, and after watching the nocturnal sorting of the calabashes, we drove through the nearby farmland to our motel.

The morning of the festival, after breakfast at Dominique's Family Restaurant ('Where we do all the Chores!'), we returned to the fairgrounds to set up our display of gourd instruments. A fifth orchestra member, John Ramsey, had driven all night from Richmond, and joined us as the gates opened.

The Ohio Gourd Show is the largest gourd festival in the country. Every year, the Ohio Gourd Society (the Beta Chapter of the American Gourd Society) sponsors this three-day collection of gourd growers, gourd crafters and just plain gourd-head enthusiasts. The town of Mt. Gilead is transformed by the festival. All the shops along Main Street put gourds in their window displays, and vendors line the sidewalks with all types of hand crafts and trinkets (and goofy junk) for sale. Everyone sees a huge increase in business for the three days, and the whole area gears up for the annual pilgrimage. At the Fairgrounds, where the festival itself is held, there are several buildings where exhibitors show off their gourd creations, and an outdoor sales area where people can buy and sell dozens of types of gourds from growers around the country.

As scores of gourd-heads filed past our booth, we demonstrated our instruments, answered questions, and sold our compact disk and t-shirt. Around mid-day, and again in the afternoon, we brought our instruments to the outdoor stage and performed for the crowds. In a way, we had the perfect audience, since they already were familiar with the fact that gourds make music, but had not seen a large ensemble of musicians playing original compositions on such instruments. During a few songs, we had Gourd Man join us. With his limbs covered in gourd shells, plus gourd necklace and hat, Gourd Man danced on stage in his roller skates while we played our thumb pianos, drums, shakers and other instruments.

Between performances, a reporter from the nearby Marion Star interviewed Arthur about the origins of the orchestra and his idea to bring us to the festival. We had to explain to some folks that we were from Richmond Virginia, not Richmond Indiana, which is just a couple hours drive from Mt. Gilead.

Throughout the afternoon, we took turns at our booth or wandered around the fairgrounds. We saw the field of gourds from the night before, with swarms of enthusiasts browsing for the perfect size and shape. People walked among the display buildings and outdoor booths, looking, buying, selling and comparing notes. Some exchanged tips on growing and pollinating. Others attended workshops on Japanese gourd craft, or enjoyed Gourd Theater. There was judging for the largest, the heaviest, the longest, the weirdest gourd grown by gardeners. There was also a gourd craft judging; this year's theme was cartoons. We saw the Flintstones, Popeye and Olive Oyl, the Peanuts, Tasmanian Devil, all made from gourds, carved, painted, glued into little gourd dioramas. A writer and gourd musician from Berkeley was selling his book on gourd craft, and ended up asking us to contribute to his next edition. We saw gourd lamps, birdhouses, purses, hats, backscratchers, helmets, toys, whirligigs, dolls and dippers and drums (oh my). Barry brought a gourd dollhouse back for the Richmond Children's Museum, which is planning to start growing and crafting gourds for our city's kids to enjoy. One area sold highly coveted seeds of certain types of gourds. We saw gourds that had been flattened while growing to look like a strange organic violin, and others whose long stems were tied in knots while hanging on the vine. There were gourds with African, Native American, Asian, and Hawaiian designs, decorations carved or burned or painted onto the shells. The most amazing thing, however, was the sense of energy and almost subversive joy that the gourd-heads had, and the knowledge they shared with one another in this high concentration. I expected to see secret gourd handshakes and bizarre gourd-patch initiation ceremonies, but I suppose that sort of thing stays in the garden and doesn't come to these big gatherings.

In the evening, the Ohio Gourd Society held a dinner in the nearby Senior Citizen's building. These folks were the true die-hard gourd heads, the people who'd had their own booths and displays, who spoke of gourds with a glowing green light in their eyes. You can imagine the conversations across the tables in that room. Then again, maybe you can't. After the meal and a few demonstrations, we were again asked to play. By the third song, we had half the Senior Center rocking in a gourd-vine conga line around the auditorium. They went completely out of their gour-- er, they enjoyed us very much.

The Gourd Show continued the next day, but we were only able to see a bit in the morning before we headed back to Virginia. We watched the entrants in the gourd hat contest filing out of the gourd breakfast, and we had our picture taken with, yes, the Gourd Queen. As we said our good-byes to the show's organizers, they insisted that we return next fall. We piled back into the Gourdmobile and started for home. The Orchestra had made the front page article of the local paper, which Barry read aloud to us as we pulled out of Mt. Gilead.

On the drive back through southeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania, we saw groups of men returning from the Promisekeepers rally in Washington, D.C. They had the look of renewed belief, but oh, how their faith paled when compared to our hosts at the festival. Yes, we had seen the true deep conviction, we had witnessed the dedication of the converted, yea verily, we had seen the light on Mount Gilead: One Gourd Nation, under Cross Pollination. In Gourd we Trust.

Honey Bear Miller

Festival Participant Honey Bear Miller

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