Sam Landstra — Staff Writer
Helen Huitink combs through a homemade photo album commemorating the 20th anniversary of Pumpkinland. For 29 years, Huitink and her late husband, Dave, owned and operated the cherished fall attraction. Creases around her smile formed from years of chatting with Pumpkinland visitors appear on her face as she points out a picture to her granddaughter, Karli Lang, a junior at Northwestern College.
A bouquet of white Easter lilies given in memory of Dave decorate the dining room table Huitink and Lang sit at. Over a year ago in April, Dave, lovingly known as “Grandpa Pumpkin” to family and faithful guests of Pumpkinland, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. The following season, Pumpkinland announced its closing in light of his passing.
Huitink flips to a page documenting the beginning of Pumpkinland. Cutout photos of corn and autumn leaves adorn the archive.
In 1988, Grandpa Pumpkin placed a corn shock and a dozen pumpkins next to the Huitink garden. The arrangement attracted a passerby who asked if the pumpkins were for sale. A year later, the inquiry turned into a small porch-front pumpkin enterprise.
“It started kind of by accident,” said Huitink. “It wasn’t really Pumpkinland, but it was the beginning.”
The next page reveals a faded sales sheet from 1989 pasted onto a piece of orange construction paper. The log contains profits, quantities, dates, and customer names recorded by Darren Huitink, a son of Grandpa and Grandpa Pumpkin. A middle schooler at the time, young Darren wrote “old lady”, “person”, and “big lady”, for unfamiliar buyers.
Aerial shots of various corn maze designs fill the latter half of the photo album. Huitink and Lang share laughs as they reminisce on previous patterns.
The corn maze became a popular attraction for Dordt and Northwestern college students and youth groups. Designs over the years included a jack-o-lantern, an ear of corn, and Saturn with its moons.
The corn shock and assortment of pumpkins by the Huitink garden had transformed into a full-time business when Pumpkinland celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2008. The farm sold local fruits and vegetables, baked goods, and regional crafts out of a large, white aluminum barn. In addition to the corn maze, Animal-Land gave an opportunity for visitors to pet a wide range of farm animals. A half dozen employees worked significant hours during the fall while many others pitched in on weekends.
“It’s very rewarding; but very time consuming,” said Huitink. “Just not enough hours in the day.”
The passing of Grandpa Pumpkin in 2018 meant Pumpkinland lost the face of their farm and an integral aspect of their operation. Grandpa Pumpkin planted crops, cared for the animals, and interacted with Pumpkinland visitors. When school groups visited Pumpkinland, he could be seen greeting children as they exited the bus.
Grandma Pumpkin described her husband as, “my best friend and life partner” and recalls his love for Christ and his family. On visits to the farm as a kid, Grandpa Pumpkin gave Lang and her siblings rides in the gator.
Following the passing of Grandpa Pumpkin, Grandma Pumpkin had only two weeks to decide whether to plant crops for the upcoming fall season. After prayerful consideration, she decided to keep Pumpkinland open.
On a sunny fall day in 2018, Grandma Pumpkin stood behind a Pumpkinland cash register checking out visitors with arms full of pies, popcorn, and preserves. An excited energy echoed within the aluminum walls of the barn.
Visitors mulled over baskets of apples brought in by local farmers and crates filled with colorful gourds and squashes. Others sized up pumpkins on a quest to find the perfect specimen for carving.
Outside the barn, visitors lost themselves in the corn maze cut out in the form of a farmer riding his tractor. One of these disoriented wanderers, was Juliana Tien.
A sophomore at Dordt University, Tien makes up the demographic of local college students impacted by Pumpkinland and its closing. The Orange City native visited Pumpkinland for the first time in 2010 with her GEMS group and has since held a close relationship with the Pumpkinland family. Lang and Tien grew up on the same street and remain good friends today.
“Being around them was warm,” said Tien. “Pumpkinland meant a lot to people because it was a generational thing- you could take your children there, it could be a high school thing, a middle school thing.”
At nearby Animal-Land, small children grasped the metal wire of a goose pen and gazed upon the waterfowl with curiosity. A young girl reached out her hand towards a black goat named Raymond.
Busy days like these at Pumpkinland required an extra amount of help in the absence of Grandpa Pumpkin. “A village” of family, friends, church groups, and a local Boy Scout troop gave their time as a gesture of gratitude for Pumpkinland’s presence in the community.
“It was a pretty unique year for their family because it honored Grandpa Pumpkin,” said Tien. “A lot of community members pulled together to make it happen.”
On March 11, Grandma Pumpkin announced the closing of Pumpkinland via Facebook. The post reached an audience of 59,000 with 401 comments and 538 shares exchanging fond memories of Pumpkinland and expressing their thankfulness for Grandpa and Grandma Pumpkin.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” said Huitink. “It was just hard to put the word out there.”
Grandma Pumpkin closes the photo album after looking back on the memories she and her granddaughter made during Pumpkinland’s 29 years of existence. Although Dordt students like Tien won’t walk the corn maze or buy baked goods this fall, the property looks the same. The Pumpkinland sign still stands by the side of the road.
“I’m trying to be very open to where God might be leading me next,” said Huitink. “It’s just been a privilege, an honor just to have been a part of so many family’s lives and family’s traditions over the years.”