From Petunia Plants to Scarecrow Pants … The Growing of Pumpkinfest

Creative solutions often stem from good ideas that didn’t quite take root, and such is the planting of Zeeland’s Pumpkinfest!

In the early 1980’s, downtown Zeeland underwent a remarkable transformation from Main Avenue to Main Place;  a new streetscape with a traffic calming configuration, trees and shrubs grown in concrete planters and plexi-glass canopies covering pedestrian walkways.

To celebrate its new environment, downtown businesses worked with local creative marketing expert Jack Oonk who collaborated with merchants to develop a spring Petunia Festival which would draw attention to the improvements and encourage business promotion.  It was a wonderful concept which showed early success, but petunias couldn’t compete over time with tulips which owned the local spring season.  Before long, even the petunia mural on a downtown building was lost to the progress of a new paint job!

Another opportunity arose for a downtown festival when the Zeeland High School Band was invited to be part of a national band competition in St. Louis, Missouri.  As part of the fundraising strategy, band parents and supporters sponsored a huge autumn garage sale downtown. Merchants supported their efforts through donations, promotions and special events.  Band members sold pumpkins door-to-door. The event was a tremendous success! It effectively created a synergy between downtown businesses and other groups while drawing families to Main Place.

While urgent needs for band fundraising were not present the next year, the passion for a festival put on BY the community FOR the community had been seeded, and the annual fall Pumpkinfest began in 1985.  Zeeland Merchants Association (ZMA), a committee of the local Chamber of Commerce, encouraged the festival to invite local industries and businesses to participate along with downtown merchants and school groups. Funding was needed for operating capital for the festival, so a unique collaboration was developed where the Zeeland Chamber of Commerce sought businesses to create and fund a festival event in exchange for being highlighted in a publication that offered affordable advertising as well.  Costs were modest as most work was done by volunteers, and the festival was launched as a free/low cost opportunity for local families and visitors to enjoy Main Place and the Pumpkinfest events.

The festival evolved into a three day event that takes place the first Thursday, Friday and Saturday in October every year.  In appreciation for local residents, with support from downtown merchants, the inspirational kickoff to Pumpkinfest became the ZMA “Dinner on Us” at which the community is treated to a free meal provided by the merchant group. Inspired desserts support the theme, and the Zeeland Community Band has provided entertainment for the 1,500 people who came for the meal and fun.This tradition has evolved through the years into various menus and events, but it is still the great beginning activity to which generations of Zeelanders are drawn.                                                

Each year a new theme for Pumpkinfest is chosen by the committee, keeping the festival fresh and fun. Decorations are created 100% by volunteers and placed throughout downtown and around the community. Themes have sometimes been a reflection of the spirit, history, products or services of Zeeland including; “Made in Zeeland,” “A Walk Through Time” and “Harvesting Goodwill.” Other themes highlight our beautiful state of Michigan, “Pumpkinfest Celebrates Michigan”, our great nation “Proud to be an American,”  or even whimsical themes with “Once Upon a Time.

New events are featured and familiar activities are anticipated by both young and old.Families look forward to experiencing downtown and tasting some of the local flavor as well as the once a year food favorites including kettle corn, cotton candy, pie eating contest, baked pumpkin creations, paddle pops and more! Children line the streets to get their chance at the tractor pull, take their turn participating in children’s events or petting local farm animals.  The Saturday parade brings out the entire community featuring bands, floats, tractors and more all decorated in the annual autumn theme. The event closes with an outdoor entertainment tent featuring local bands. For a complete list of this year’s events click here.

In 2012, Zeeland Festivals, Inc. was created to carry on the Pumpkinfest tradition for many years to come. Through this reorganization, 2013 was the first year that the festival operated as a completely independent non-profit 501c4 entity.  . To learn about sponsorships and donations, click here.

 For 30 years the Zeeland community has put on this family-friendly fall event. Each year the festival has a theme in which the street decor and parade floats use to create visual masterpieces. Past themes are listed below.

2001                  “Pumpkinfest Gone West”

2002                  “Puttin’ Down Roots”

2003                  “Rollin’ through the Parks”

2004                  “Proud to be an American”

2005                  “Walk Through Time”

2006                  “Let the Games Begin”

2007                  “Pumpkinfest Goes Hollywood”

2008                  “A Time to Shine”

2009                  “Once Upon a Time”

2010                  “Pumpkinfest Celebrates Michigan”

2011                  “Harvesting Goodwill”

2012                  “Made in Zeeland”

2013                  “Pumpkinfest Hits the Road”

2014                  “Pumpkinfest Pride… Celebrating 30 Years”

The 2015 theme is “Pumpkinfest goes WILD” and we invite all local residents, friends, families, and guests to enjoy this truly unique small town festival taking place October 2 & 3.