Does the Great Pumpkin Exist? Just Ask Farmer George Perry

updated 11/01/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/01/1982 01:00AM

On a crisp fall night back in the 1840s, an Irish immigrant to the United States must have looked at a pumpkin and said "Eureka!" Before then, the Irish had somehow carved jack-o'-lanterns out of turnips or potatoes. But ever since that fateful first encounter with a sharp knife, the bulbous orange fruit has been the symbol of Halloween.

That's just the way George Perry, 63, of Manteca, Calif. wants it. He's the state's largest pumpkin wholesaler and perhaps the biggest pumpkin purveyor in the nation. From the estimated 12 million pounds—roughly 1.2 million pumpkins—he will sell this year, Perry expects to harvest at least $500,000. "A happy crop," he calls it, beaming like the jack-o'-lantern he is wearing at right. On his farm in sunny San Joaquin Valley, 80 miles east of San Francisco, Perry grows pumpkins for every purpose. There are Improved Jack-0'-Lanterns (about the size of bowling balls and used for carving), Connecticut Field Pumpkins (as big as beachballs and ripe for eating), Big Maxes (weighing up to 150 pounds and employed more for decoration than food), and White Pumpkins (which make fine soufflés and pies).

George Perry wasn't around 8,000 years ago when Mexican Indians began cultivating squash, the pumpkin's ancestor, for its tasty seeds. But he has been around pumpkins since age 6. He dropped out of high school to help his father, Delphino, an immigrant from the Azores, manage their pumpkins and cows. By 1944, George was expanding the farm. Because he also had more customers than he could supply, Perry began a brokerage business, selling fruit for several small growers.

Perry and his wife of 41 years, Violet, 60, live in a seven-room home near their 1,300 acres of mostly pumpkins, watermelons and squash. Sons Art, 37, and George Jr., 33, and daughter Carolyn, 39, also work with the company, while son David, 21, is a golf pro. With such a family preoccupation with pumpkins, the Perrys can concur with the couplet written by an anonymous Pilgrim in 1630: "We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon. If it were not for pumpkins we should be undone."

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