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Through days of drizzling rain and grey clouds, Highwood lit up the night sky with tens of thousands of jack-o’-lanterns at the ninth annual Great Highwood Pumpkin Festival, the grandest of the off-kilter events in the city meant to bring people together for a good cause.
Around 16,000 jack-o’-lanterns sitting on multi-level scaffolding framed the streets of the festival, as tens of thousands of visitors enjoyed four stages of live music, traversed the mini-midway with carnival rides, cheered on various costume contests and had their fair share of local restaurants to choose from.
The all-day weekend festival, put on by the non-profit Celebrate Highwood organization, originated in 2010 with the intent of breaking the Guinness World Record for the most lit jack-o-lanterns displayed in one location, set by the city of Keene, New Hampshire with 30,581 in 2013.
Since its beginnings, money raised from the Great Highwood Pumpkin Fest has gone to charitable organizations, and in recent years all proceeds have gone to Make-A-Wish Illinois, Ilyse Strongin, PR Coordinator for Celebrate Highwood, said.
This year’s festival, along with the the week of festivities precluding the event, brought in anywhere from 70,000 to 90,000 attendees from across the region, she said, and had the goal of raising $120,000 for Make-A-Wish.
Alderman Eric Falberg, President of Celebrate Highwood, said he suggested going after Keene’s jack-o-lanterns record when he joined the city council as a way to spice up the town’s harvest festival. After the introductory year yielded 1200 carved pumpkins, Highwood’s Pumpkin Fest produced 26,000 carved pumpkins in its second year.
In recent years the focus of the festival has shifted away from going after the record and towards improving the quality and experience of the week, Falberg said. However, he said they plan to go back to their roots of going for the record next year for the tenth annual festival.
In addition to Celebrate Highwood’s work towards improving the overall quality of the week of activities, the festival has become about supporting Make-A-Wish Illinois and the Wish families who travel to the event, Highwood Mayor Charlie Pecaro said.
“Originally it started out with bringing people to the city, and breaking the Guinness World Record,” he said. “Then all of a sudden you meet some of these Make-A-Wish families and how it touches their lives and changes their views, their future views, [because] now there is a future and it makes you work that much harder.”
Many Make-A-Wish children and their families now travel for the event in order to see other Make-A-Wish families, Strongin said.
In addition, Make-A-Wish children and their families are honored each night of the festival during the lighting of the pumpkins.
“Every night we have a wish family, and the child gets up there and tells their story,” she said. “Tonight they get to turn the lights off in the city, and the walls light up. [It will] be the big one where we’ll actually hand out candles and the families will light the lower pumpkins with the kids. It’s just the most moving thing in the world.”
Celebrate Highwood has built a reputation for its quirky festivals, including Bloody Mary Fest, Garlic Fest and Inferno Fest. Falberg said he hopes the most recent addition, the country-music themed-Nashwood, can become akin to a South-by-Southwest for country music in the midwest.
He said he is still waiting for inspiration for what novel festival they could try next.
“They kind of come in the middle of the night,” he said.