The Story Behind Charlotte's Great Pumpkin Wall
Each autumn, just as the weather turns cooler and colorful fallen leaves begin to swirl, a quiet street in the Charlotte, North Carolina, neighborhood of Elizabeth turns into a magical escape.
There, neighbors and people from all over the community gather and marvel at the sight before them: The Elizabeth Great Pumpkin Wall is seemingly endless rows of hundreds of pumpkins lined up, carved and lit for a few weeks around Halloween each year.
It is breathtaking for its sheer, overwhelming size, stunning enough to draw thousands of visitors each year who gawk and linger, and enchantingly brings the community together.
The wall has been erected at 721 Clement Ave. for the past five years, outside Hardin Minor's house. It takes a full day of neighborhood volunteers to put together the "elegantly unique outdoor shelving system," as Minor calls it, where the pumpkins rest.
"(It) has an Amish community barn-raising feel to it," Minor said.
Another full day is devoted to area children (OK, and adults) carving the 200-300 pumpkins in an assembly line-like process, where the tops are popped off with saws to make de-gutting the pumpkins easier.
But the best day might be the lighting ceremony, where hundreds of twinkling, white lights are illuminated in the pumpkins – along with a single word outlined in blue lights that serves as each year's theme.
"The key to the magic is the use of Christmas tree lights instead of candles so that once all pumpkins are carved and in place we have a lighting ceremony," Minor said. "But the real magic is in the faces of the kids as they find their pumpkin lit up.
"I like to tell the children that late at night the pumpkins begin chattering to each other and sometimes they sing silly pumpkin songs such that I have to come out and ask that they, 'Please, keep it down.'"
The Great Pumpkin Wall has a way of adding a sense of awe and wonder and togetherness to all who see it.
It wasn't always that way. Elizabeth's Great Pumpkin Wall first rose in 2004, thanks to a group of neighborhood handymen and women who called themselves "the Woodpeckers." One member of the group was an architect and had a wild idea for a wall of pumpkins in the neighborhood – one that also reflected the group's shared liberal political leanings.
Everyone chipped in -- about $2,000 total, they estimate – then worked on the construction, and the first wall was built outside Kevin Strawn's house at 537 Lamar Ave. It came complete with enormous, glowing letters that spelled out "Kerry," in honor of the Democratic presidential nominee that year, John Kerry.
Strawn and his wife, Marynell McPherson, were somewhat apprehensive about having the wall outside their home, at first.
"Neither one of us are terribly outgoing extroverts," he said. "And so we wondered, what's this going to be like? This thing is going to be in front of my house and all these people are going to come? I don't know if I really love that. But it ended up being a wonderful experience. People would come by and tell stories, just about themselves, saying things like, 'I wish I lived in a cool neighborhood like this.'"
Strawn set out a "guest book" for visitors, and 800 people signed that first year.
Ever since then, the wall – and the legend behind it – has grown.
For the first eight years, the Woodpeckers remained the caretakers, and the theme was always political. Since 2013, the Elizabeth Community Association has been in charge of organizing the construction of the wall and broadened the focus each year to be more inclusive and less political. Themed words have included "EVOLVE" (2016), "HOPE" (2017), "LOVE" (2018) and "EARTH" in 2019 in honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
Along the way there have been mishaps and lessons learned by all. Once, vandals tried to light a fire, rather unsuccessfully. "It looked like someone tried to put a candle out," Strawn said. Another time, huge gusts of wind caused the center section of the wall to cave forward. "But the structure held," Minor said. And each year, everyone has to be on the lookout for the rotting pumpkins the longer the wall is up.
"We had sort of a morning ritual where we would come out and see if all the pumpkins were still there," Strawn said. "And sometimes, 'No, this one had rotted.' And with the face carved out, they tended to lean forward and then do a suicide dive down into the ground. So, then we just clean that one up and stick another one up there."
There's a rhythm and a system to the wall each year: It's built with pumpkins purchased from a local farmer's market and donated from the grocery store. When Halloween has passed, the pumpkins are donated to a local farmer, who uses them to feed pigs.
And every year, people from all over Charlotte – young, old, costumed, work-attired, just-passing-by and single-destination – gather and marvel at the creation.
"It just feels right -- laid back, free, fun, safe," Minor said. "Where humans are transformed as much as the pumpkins are. Neighbors and strangers alike."
This year, the Great Pumpkin Wall will have a few changes to accommodate for coronavirus guidelines. The wall has been moved to a vacant lot at Laurel Street and Greenway Avenue to allow for more social distancing. And there will be no traditional pumpkin carving party. Instead, neighbors have been invited to pick up pumpkins Oct. 26-29, carve them at home, and bring them back Oct. 29 or before noon Oct. 30. The socially distanced lighting ceremony -- with the official unveiling of this year's theme word -- takes place Oct. 30 at 6:45 p.m.