For nearly 30 years, the first week in November meant one thing to many people – World Championship Punkin Chunkin.
Thousands of spectators turned out each year to watch a variety of low- and high-tech machines fire pumpkins. As the event grew and more space was needed, it moved from farm to farm in Sussex County. During the last event in the county, air cannon teams were closing in on an unthinkable chunk of one mile.
Beginning in 2013 and 2014, the association ran into legal, insurance and logistics issues, and was forced to cancel the event six times over an eight-year period including 2014, ‘15, ‘17 and ‘18, before working out a deal to move the event to Illinois in 2019.
In 2020, it was canceled again because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was no event this year.
Not in Sussex County or Delaware
If Punkin Chunkin does return in 2022, it's almost a certainty it won't be in Sussex County or Delaware.
World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association President Frank Payton said ideally, the event would take place where it was born in Delaware. “However, our event involves risk, and even with the appropriate insurance in place and waivers signed, Delaware has no laws limiting the amount for which an individual or organization can be sued,” said Payton.
In 2015, Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, attempted to introduce legislation that would change these laws. “Unfortunately, the bill was voted down in committee and never made it any further. While we appreciate his efforts, we understand that there are other factors at play and certain organizations within our state that will work to see that these changes never happen,” Payton said.
An effort to keep event alive
“We have struggled as an organization to keep our beloved event alive both in spirit and in reality. There have been many obstacles in our path in recent years – some well known and others not so much – but our will to keep Punkin Chunkin alive remains as strong as ever,” Payton wrote in a recent posting on the association's website.
Payton said 2022 will be a crucial year for the event. “If we are not able to build the necessary support and get things back on track with a physical event, the future of our organization will remain uncertain. So, we are once again at the point where we need the public’s help to make Punkin Chunkin a reality. Most importantly, we need a wide-open space where we can let pumpkins fly,” he said.
The association is looking for 200 acres or more of open land on the Delmarva Peninsula, preferably in Maryland or Virginia.
Payton said the association realizes it may have to rebuild the event from the ground up. “That may also mean that we have to organically grow our event the same way we did all those years ago. We are ready and willing to make concessions to get Punkin Chunkin back on track,” Payton said.
A long history in Sussex
The event started in 1986 when a few friends in Lewes built rudimentary machines to chunk leftover Halloween pumpkins. Over the years, the event grew larger and larger, and attracted national and even international attention, thanks in part to an annual Thanksgiving TV special aired by Discovery/Science Channel.
In its heyday, more than 100 machines participated in the event, with 50,000 to 70,000 spectators looking skyward.
More than 30,000 spectators attended the 2016 event, the last time it took place in Sussex County.
Payton said the Illinois event attracted fewer than 15,000 spectators. The association used proceeds from the event to support charities and present scholarships. Over the years, the association donated more than $1 million back to the community.