to the World's Largest Gourd Festival
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.
Participant Honey Bear Miller
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