The lost art of siege warfare was alive and well in Lamoille County Sunday as the 12th Pumpkin Chuckin Festival filled the air with the sound of smashing pumpkins.
A crowd gathered to watch as trebuchets, those bygone ballista slingers that no army could do without prior to the age of gunpowder, used the power of applied physics to launch small orange gourds hundreds of feet, arcing high into the air before occasionally splintering upon impact.
The event, which returned after forgoing last year due to COVID restrictions, also featured a chili cook off, live music and a large robot built from scrap that roamed the field where pumpkins landed to the delight of children and adults.
All proceeds from the ticketed event benefited the Clarina Howard Nichols Center, a nonprofit working to end domestic and sexual violence in Lamoille County.
The winner out of the four chilis entered into the contest was Carter Peck, who submitted a smoky and flavorful cowboy-style stew.
The mastermind behind this unique autumnal celebration, Dave Jordan, is an inventor living in Morristown currently at work on a tennis robot that would allow for more accurate tracking. The festival is a mechanical evolution of a traditional “pumpkin chucking,” where contestants competed to see who could throw a pumpkin the farthest with the force of their own bodies.
What occurs now is what Jordan described as a contest of “applied physics, material science, woodworking and common sense.”
Contestants are separated into three size categories — lightweight, middleweight and heavyweight — and separate age categories within those divisions. While the contest has seen up to 20 contests in pre-COVID times, this year there were 10.
Many of the trebuchet builders are attempting to catch up with Jonathan Stapleton, a physics teacher at Essex High School. His walking-stick design is a stripped down, ultra-efficient trebuchet and winner in the heavyweight class. Consistently, Stapleton launched pumpkins clear out of the field and into the tree line, a distance well out of the field of play that judges were able to clock at over 750 feet.
“I started out with the idea of a floating-arm trebuchet and then thought, could I just dispense with the whole platform and the rollers?” Stapleton said of his unique trebuchet design, a mantis-like structure that efficiently uses every bit of force in its frame and counterweight to achieve its impressive propulsion.
Stapleton and his family have a winning tradition at the Pumpkin Chuckin event. His son, Orion, was the default winner this year in the junior division of the lightweight class and launched pumpkins from a paired down Merlin design, which starts in low gear and winds up before launching its projectile. Stapleton’s daughter has also won the event in her category in the past.
Another father and son team shared a single trebuchet in the middleweight division. Steve McCann, a carpenter by trader, and his middle school-aged son Steven traveled from western Maine to participate in the festival, just as they have since 2016.
Part of the fun for the McCanns has been tinkering with the design of their trebuchet to improve the distance their pumpkin flies. Between the last contest and this fall, they reversed a part of their trebuchet to alter it.
“There was something that seemed to be missing about it,” Steve McCann said. “So, we’ve reoriented it into a full floating arm design to see if we could figure it out and we’ve gained 40 or 50 feet out of our changes.”
The winner of the middleweight division, however, was Raymond Chamberlain of Concord, N.H. A veteran of the festival who has been attending since Jordan started it, Chamberlain won out with a classic King Arthur design, its axle arm floating freely below the sling.
Nick Helms and Michael Minnie, two longtime friends who have been building trebuchets together for a decade, brought out the most medieval trebuchet. Helms, who even came in chainmail in a previous year, got interested in trebuchets after encountering its use in a tabletop game.
Their trebuchet made use of a large metal bucket, crafted by Helms’ metalworking father, filled with water to provide the counterweight. Two separate triggers set the arcing machine in motion and consistently launched pumpkins nearly 400 feet.
“There can be a lot of maintenance,” Helms said. “Things do break and there’s a lot of stresses. So, you know every time you fire it’s costing you money.”
For Helms, Minnie and the others participating in the Pumpkin Chuckin Festival though, it’s all about the love of taking on the challenge of building an intricate, archaic machine. And, of course, the satisfying sound of a pumpkin exploding in the open field.