An 8-foot-long cake marks a sweet kickoff at last year’s Sycamore Pumpkin Festival. (Sycamore Pumpkin Festival photos)

Small-Town Fun at Sycamore Pumpkin Festival

Expect more than 75,000 visitors to fill this small town in DeKalb county, as it celebrates the fall season. Discover how you can join the fun events, pumpkin contest and more.

An 8-foot-long cake marks a sweet kickoff at last year’s Sycamore Pumpkin Festival. (Sycamore Pumpkin Festival photos)
An 8-foot-long cake marks a sweet kickoff at last year’s Sycamore Pumpkin Festival. (Sycamore Pumpkin Festival photos)

Over five days every October, Sycamore’s population nearly quadruples for the annual Sycamore Pumpkin Festival, happening this year Oct. 22-26.

The 75,000 visitors not only come to see the brightly decorated orbs packing the lawn of the DeKalb County Courthouse, but also to attend the popular craft shows, Sycamore Pumpkin Run 10k Road Race, abundant activities, delicious fall food and two-hour concluding parade.

Most of all, it’s the feeling of small-town fun that has never been commercialized, says Jerry Malmassari, president and historian of the Pumpkin Festival Committee.

“We’ve always been very concerned that this fest remain a family festival,” he says.

So far, the lack of beer gardens and commercial food/merchandise sales have by no means hurt attendance.

“The festival has become ingrained into the fabric of the town,” says Jerome Perez, corresponding secretary of the festival committee. “Many of the residents remember participating in the pumpkin display on the courthouse lawn as kids, or as parents, with their children, or even as grandparents with their grandchildren. Many families come together, and often the local high school classes plan their reunions to coincide with the event. It remains popular because it’s still an event that focuses on families and their children.”

‘Mr. Pumpkin’

The Sycamore Pumpkin Festival was the brainchild of the late Wally Thurow, a Sycamore resident and active member of the Sycamore Lions Club.

Thurow became known as “Mr. Pumpkin” for displaying decorated Halloween pumpkins on the front lawn of his 1917 American Foursquare. His house still stands on Main Street and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

But it was in 1962, when the Lions Club needed a new fundraising idea, that the framework of today’s festival really took shape.

Malmassari, whose father was good friends with Thurow, recalls: “Wally said, ‘I have a great idea. Why don’t we let the kids decorate pumpkins? We can sell hot dogs off on the side, sell hot chocolate and stuff … and let’s do it on the courthouse lawn, right in the center of town.’”

It was Thurow who asked the county board for permission to host the small fundraiser, and it was Thurow who promoted it, even contacting Ray Rayner, a 1960s and ’70s Chicago children’s television host. “He got the kids and their pumpkin displays on shows like ‘Bozo’s Circus’ and it was great exposure for the festival,” Malmassari recalls.

In fact, it grew so much that the Lions Club soon realized it needed help running the festival. Other civic and nonprofit groups were asked to sponsor booths or activities, and eventually a festival committee was formed to provide oversight.

Even today, the fair is run entirely by nonprofits and is still led by the Lions Club, with only nonprofit DeKalb County organizations allowed to participate as vendors.

What to Expect

While festival events and participants have remained fairly consistent over the past dozen years, new features do evolve. Two years ago, for the festival’s 50th anniversary, the committee added entertainment on Saturday afternoons. Last year, a children’s band and the Jesse White Tumblers put on exhibitions. This year, the South Shore Drill Team and a magician will perform on Saturday.

But it’s the festival staples which continue to attract the most visitors, starting with a downtown business district Trick or Treat for children on Wednesday from 4:30 to 6 p.m., sponsored by the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce. Nearly 1,500 costumed kids walk the streets for trick or treat, says Rose Treml, executive director of the chamber.

Afterward, kids can check in their decorated pumpkins at the courthouse lawn during fest opening ceremonies. This year, an 8-foot-by-8-foot cake will be cut by Hannah Sebby, a fifth-grader at Southeast Elementary School in Sycamore who won the 2014 festival theme contest with her entry, “Pumpkin Inventions.”

Children who submit a decorated pumpkin will receive a ticket for a free hot dog and drink at the Lions Club stand.

Thursday and Friday provide opportunities to visit the pumpkin display, a kiddie carnival, a teen carnival and more.

Two separate craft shows – one at Sycamore United Methodist Church on Friday and Saturday, and the other at Sycamore High School on Saturday and Sunday – showcase a variety of artists.

One-day-only events on Saturday include an historic homes walk, golf scramble, pie-eating contest and miniature golf event.

By far the most active festival day is Sunday. Early in the morning, festivalgoers can join or watch the Sycamore Pumpkin Run 10k Road Race. More than 1,800 runners finished the chamber-sponsored race last year, with hundreds of spectators cheering them on.

“People will come out and run in Halloween costumes,” Perez says. “You don’t see a gorilla running down the street very often, but you do in Sycamore.”

Because the race starts at 9:35 a.m., there’s plenty of time to check out the pumpkin display before finding a good seat for the Pumpkin Festival Parade, which steps off at 1 p.m.

The parade – a two-hour campaign that runs through part of the city’s historic district on Somonauk Street to the commercial district on State Street to Main Street – by itself draws 25,000 to 30,000 spectators, says Perez, who also is the parade chairman.

It’s also one of the favorite activities of Sebby, who will be in the parade this year as the event theme contest winner.

“I like the parade and the carnivals,” says the 10-year-old, who has attended the fair with her family for many years. “One time, my cousins from Philadelphia came and watched the parade …. It’s so fun and exciting. My brother, my sister, my grandparents and my cousins, they all come. Aunts and uncles, they all meet up.”

Community Spirit

The festival is a big boost to Sycamore businesses.

“We get people from Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan,” says Treml. “And, we get families who plan their reunions around it. Whenever we can host events that draw from all over, our hotels get booked, which is fabulous because that’s money for the city. Visitors are eating in our restaurants, they’re sleeping in our hotels, they’re spending money in our gift shops … it’s wonderful for our economy.”

But the festival is much more than a profit-making spectacle – it’s a true community event that makes residents proud.

“We know how hard the committee and nonprofits work on this event,” Treml says. “They’re just residents. They’re just citizens. They work very, very hard to put it on. It’s amazing when you come to that event and realize how flawless it is – and that’s because you have such dedicated residents. These are people who do this because they love Sycamore.”