Travis Reckner loves to talk about pumpkins, and even dreams about them. Reckner, a 47-year-old Oxford, Massachusetts native, is the co-founder of what’s now a company that produces jack-o’-lantern fundraisers in three states — including the Jack-O’-Lantern Spectacular that kicks off in Louisville’s Iroquois Park on Tuesday.
Reckner has carved pumpkins since his family’s first jack-o’-lantern fundraiser in 1988. If you ask him how the family’s modest fundraiser expanded to three events that involve more than 15,000 pumpkins in total, he will tell you about a trip to Vermont.
Reckner said his dad is obsessed with pumpkins, and would spend days vacationing from his job as a mailman to carve them. He said his dad even talks about pumpkins during Christmas. On a family trip to Vermont when Reckner was 15, the family found a local farm was using a jack-o’-lantern display to raise money.
“My dad was like, ‘God, we should do something like this in Oxford,’” Reckner said. “‘We can turn it into a fundraiser for the school system.’”
Back then, Reckner said his friends and family would work 120 hours a week carving pumpkins and organizing similar fundraisers in Oxford. When other cities noticed and asked the family to bring the fundraiser to them, their business grew.
“The carving would get more elaborate and we would add more pumpkins. Then a couple hundred pumpkins turned into 500, and one night turned into two nights,” Reckner said. “Then before long it went to a couple of thousand pumpkins for a week.”
Now Reckner is the co-owner of Passion For Pumpkins, a company which organizes jack-o’-lantern fundraisers in Rhode Island and Minnesota as well as the annual event at Iroquois Park. Each city’s fundraiser uses more than 5,000 pumpkins for a month-long event.
Louisville’s Jack-O’-Lantern Spectacular started in 2013 and first attracted around 39,000 people according to Louisville Parks Foundation President Brooke Pardue. The Parks Foundation pays to organize the event; Pardue said last year they earned $350,000 through ticket sales and attracted 96,000 people. The event also pays dividends for the city. A spokesman for Louisville Tourism says last year’s Jack-O’-Lantern Spectacular had an overall economic impact of more than $3.2 million.
“This is our largest fundraiser for our public parks far and away,” Pardue said. “It’s a huge event and the proceeds from it are invested right back in our public parks.”
Pardue said that money has been used to install playgrounds, five turf-soccer fields and a skate park as well as make accessibility improvements to the Iroquois Amphitheater.
Reckner moved to Louisville in 2014, and sometimes he says he will drive past those parks and think about his role in helping them to improve. But when it comes down to it, Reckner says his team organizes these events because they enjoy it.
“What we try to do is to create something that’s long lasting, and to create a tradition,” Reckner said. “As far as looking to take over the world with pumpkins, [it’s] not really like that.”
Reckner now has four kids who he hopes will carve pumpkins with their grandpa someday. Until then, Reckner plans to focus on each event and to carve pumpkins in his spare time like his dad does.
“Isn’t that amazing, how it is a cycle? History repeats itself,” Reckner said. “You cherish those times like, ‘God, I used to get so mad at my dad when he would do it.’ I would give anything to have him do it one more time.”
And someday, maybe his kids will hassle him for talking about pumpkins on Christmas.
Louisville’s Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular starts Tuesday and lasts through November 3. Tickets start at $14 for adults and $10 for children. There will also be a special night on November 2 designed for people with autism spectrum disorders and sensory processing differences. More information and tickets are on the event website here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of people who attended last year’s event.