It was October 1967 when a group from the New Albany Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee had a pancake breakfast and small pumpkin festival as a downtown fundraiser.
New Albany’s second Pumpkin Festival kicked off with a parade on Thursday night, Oct. 10, 1968. The following weekend, downtown streets were blocked off for the sale of barbecued chicken, pumpkin pie and cider. The Farmers Market was open. A public square dance was held in front of the City County Building. Teenagers enjoyed a Battle of the Bands. Sunday afternoon culminated in a Pumpkin Growing & Decorating and Costume contest. Downtown merchants held their First Annual Harvest of Values Sale.
The brainchild of the New Albany Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee, the festival became a separate entity, Harvest Homecoming, in 1969. Founding members included the late Cora Jacobs, Henry Ramsier, Paul Lipps, Charles Walte, Ruth Cole, Bud Ettel and Thelma Bertrand.
Fifty years later, the Pumpkin Festival has become Harvest Homecoming, Inc., a 501 (c)(3) non-profit and draws hundreds of thousands to the New Albany Downtown and Riverfront. Managed by an all-volunteer Board of Directors and Officers, the festival has grown from 12 to 300 Downtown Booths, first class entertainment at the city’s Riverfront Amphitheater, a provider of college scholarships to local youth and a true “homecoming” for residents and former residents of the area.
In the 1980’s, Harvest Homecoming added a Souvenir Pin program. Pins from all festivals are displayed in the organization’s office at 431 Pearl St. in New Albany’s downtown district. The pin program is one of many ways the festival is supported, along with generous sponsors, carnival rides and registrations from the downtown booths. Through all of these participants, Harvest Homecoming is able to provide a plethora of family friendly entertainment and activities for residents and visitors, while contributing to the community through scholarships, non-profit organizations and preservation projects of its home in downtown New Albany.
Throughout the years, the Festival has drawn regional and national attention. The Miss Harvest Homecoming Pageant became affiliated with the Miss America Organization and three winners (Dayna Brewer, Shani Nielsen and Morgan Jackson) have represented the area at the Miss America Pageant. Nielsen made the Top 10 in 1996 and received a Preliminary Talent Scholarship. In 1977, the former Union Bank & Trust baked a 10-foot apple pie for the festival. The first slice was cut by Broadway actor Robert Morse, who was appearing at Derby Dinner Playhouse. The parade has drawn a number of celebrities as Grand Marshal, including The Monkees Davy Jones, NBA star David Robinson, James Drury of the television western The Virginian and country singer Louise Mandrel. Local celebrities such as golf champion Fuzzy Zoeller and Once Upon a Time’s Josh Dallas have also led the parade.
In 1999, the Harvest Homecoming Festival was honored by the United States Library of Congress through its Bicentennial Local Legacies Project of 2000. In a history read at the Library in Washington D.C. it was stated “Harvest Homecoming has been thriving and growing. It was conceived as a means of bringing the people of southern Indiana together to share in its wealth of talent, historic background and beauty.”
Earlier this year, several officers and longtime volunteers traveled to the Indiana State House for a proclamation celebrating Harvest Homecoming’s 50th year.
This year, Harvest Homecoming continues to offer “something for everyone.” A variety of free children’s events including the 50-year-old Pumpkin Decorating and Costume Contests, will take place. Children can also participate in a “Kids Day in the Tent” at the New Albany Riverfront, which includes activities from local businesses and organizations. The youngsters can also be involved in a Big Wheel Race, Dog Show, Tractor Pull, Baby Crawl, or Paint In and there’s a Baby Photo Contest. For a registration fee, a Little Miss and Master Harvest Homecoming pageant is held.
Adults can take part in a variety of competitions also. Three Years ago, the local Purdue Polytechnic became involved, hosting a Pumpkin Chunking competition open to Middle and High School students and Adults. The event is fun to watch and educational as competitors use gravity powered trebuchets to launch pumpkins.
A Fall Baking Contest, Corn Hole Tournament and even a Coffin Race, sponsored by the historic Culbertson Mansion, add to the fun and games. There’s also a golf scramble, car & bike show, bicycle tour and even Bingo for senior citizens.
The official kick-off to Harvest Homecoming’s Golden Anniversary is the Saturday, Oct. 7 parade, which begins at New Albany High School and travels Vincennes Street to Spring Street to Bank Street.
The Miss Harvest Homecoming Pageant took place in August and crowned Tiarra Taylor Miss Harvest Homecoming and Meg Edwards Miss Harvest Homecoming Teen. They will be competing at the Miss Indiana Scholarship Pageant in June 2018.
Prior to the parade kick-off, The Kevin Hammersmith Memorial “Who Wants to be a College Student” contest will take place at New Albany High School Sept. 25. Local High School Seniors compete in a game-show style night. Over 18 years, Harvest Homecoming has awarded over $200,000 in scholarships through this program. On Friday, Oct. 6, Habitat for Humanity will host a From the Ground Up event at the Knights of Columbus Hall featuring Lefty & the Lunatics.
Riverfront activities will take place Friday and Saturday in the Riverfront Tent and Amphitheater. The tent will feature DJ K-Dogg on Friday and Sounds Unlimited Productions on Saturday. Friday’s Amphitheater entertainment includes Marvin Maxwell and the Real Deal featuring Ron Gaddis and Melissa Combs, and headliners The Louisville Crashers. Saturday bands at the Amphitheater include the Mad Taxpayers and Headliners Juice Box Heroes.