The Secret is Out…The Blaze Will Glow Again This Year

It’s a little early to be thinking about pumpkins. The roses are hardly in bloom. But ever since COVID-19 became a crisis, Waddell Stillman has been obsessed with those orange creatures of fall. Stillman is not a farmer, but the President and CEO of Historic Hudson Valley (HHV), the organization that, in 2005 dreamed up The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze, which has been held ever since at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson. Now that the Governor’s recovery plan will allow outdoor activities, Stillman has given the green light to this year’s event. The Blaze is a major fundraiser for HHV and, with a sigh of relief, Stillman tells us: “The Blaze will take place this year, scaled back in number of visitors to comply with social distancing, but the pumpkins are on the way.” And to prove it, he will show you the invoice… he’s already paid for the pumpkins.

Each year, tens of thousands of pumpkins are trucked into the historic site and then hand-carved into jack o’lanterns by artists from around the Metro area. Then, they are lit up throughout the grounds from late September through November. Many are real and some are Funkin-brand “art pumpkins.” Every single jack o`lantern, farm-grown or art pumpkin, is individually hand-carved on-site at Van Cortlandt Manor by a team of some two-dozen local artists, volunteers and Historic Hudson Valley staff members, all led by Creative Director Michael Natiello. Carving of the art pumpkins begins in June. The real pumpkins are carved throughout the run of the Blaze. Prior to each event week, it takes 15 to 20 volunteers several days of scooping pulp and seeds from the pumpkins to get them ready for the carvers. And yes, the pulp and seeds are composted.

The Blaze started as a local celebration in 2005. Last year’s event drew more than 190,000 visitors, bringing in significant revenue to help the non-profit support its education programs. Stillman recalls that a large number of visitors have stayed overnight in the area, which of course is music to the ears of the tourism folks, who have been hard hit this year. The synergy between arts and culture and economic development is robust, according to studies by Americans for the Arts, which estimate that the arts have a $172 million economic impact in Westchester. Events are big earners for non-profit cultural organizations, enabling them to tap into outside resources. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis will put a crimp in that source of funding for many cultural groups, especially those with indoor venues. Nevertheless, the good news is that the pumpkins are a “go” this year.