Bright orange pumpkins painted the blue Sussex County sky once again as more than 100 teams gathered in Bridgeville to celebrate the return of Punkin Chunkin after a three-year hiatus.
Air cannons, catapults and trebuchets slung, hurled and blasted the gourds sometimes thousands of feet into an empty patch of farmland.
Others broke apart on takeoff, delivering teams on the ground what they call pumpkin pie.
John Wasylychn and his friend from Bethpage, New York claim to have gotten to Wheatley Farms before anyone else.
“We pulled in yesterday about 8:00 in the morning. We didn’t know where the hell we were going,” said Wasylyschn. “Nobody even knew where we were going either.”
He saw his first Punkin Chunkin in 2013 and anxiously waited three years before being able to return to Delaware.
Organizers had to scrap the event two years in a row over insurance concerns after a volunteer was thrown from an ATV while tracking down a pumpkin.
In the mean time, Wasylyschn went to a much smaller event in New Hampshire to tide himself over until he could come back to Bridgeville.
“They only got two bars up in Nashua or wherever that was. It was a great night. We pulled up, we spent the night and we sang and we drank and we ate and we had a goof,” he said.
Even though he had fun in New England, he says you can’t compare the two events.
“This is gigantic. This is more like going to Rome and seeing the Chapel versus going to the fishing pond and getting a guppy.”
Teams from all over the country wrangled their machines onto the farm earlier in the week.
Jim Riley of Team Pumpkin Hammer is standing next to his trebuchet getting ready to huck his first gourd of the day. Several second place trophies with one grand prize sprinkled in sit nearby.
He says it’s great to be back – especially to see and tease old friends he’s met over the years.
“There’s a little thing between the cannons and the mechanicals. We just see them go poof and you don’t see any pumpkin. But they’re good friends of ours, but the mechanicals are really neat to watch,” Riley said.
The strong head wind has Riley a bit concerned, but he shakes it off.
When it’s his turn to fire, his worst dreams come true: the pumpkin slips out of the sling early and breaks in mid-air, raining down pieces of pulp just feet in front of the trebuchet.
“The curse came back. We pied and that’s the worst thing you can do. The only good part is our machine is still up, still working. We think [the problem was] the pumpkins. It was absolutely the pumpkins.”
So he’s grabbing some extras from his friends. The Seigars from Greenfield, New Hampshire grow an acre of their own pumpkins each year.
Kathy Seigar, a self-described trebuchet widow, says her husband Steve takes the gourd itself so seriously it takes him hours to choose the perfect pumpkin to launch.
“You should’ve seen my husband in his hotel room last night. He was feeling them, he was measuring them, he was weighing them. I was a little jealous of the pumpkins, I’ve got to tell you – the way he was fondling those pumpkins,” Seigar said.
Steve might be onto something, as the Seigars’ air cannon, Yankee Doodle, nearly hit 3,200 feet with its first chunk.
American Chunker, built by a team of engineers in 2009, holds the current world record of nearly 4,700 feet and the bragging rights of a more than six-foot tall wooden trophy proudly plopped near their plot.
Even though cannons have the biggest firepower, they don’t impress everybody.
Bill Hunter from Meadville, Pennsylvania first came to Punkin Chunkin in 2010, but he’s not the biggest fan of cannons.
“There’s a lot as far as building and all, but it’s just air going up a tube, whereas the other ones have way more mechanics. It’s amazing how they come up with them,” Hunter said.
The crowd of a few hundred gasped and cheered on each team Friday.
Some cannons flirted with 4,000 feet by midday, but a strong head wind pushed back against most of them, flinging the orange projectiles off course as they flew through the brisk air.
Even though conditions weren’t perfect no one on the farm had less than a full smile on their face.
Kathy Seigars and everyone else were just happy to have their feet back on Sussex County dirt.
“This place is amazing. The people are amazing. It’s just so awesome to be back in Delaware.”