Illinois, the heart of the Midwest, is home to the most diverse pumpkin patch in the world. The Prairie State stakes claim to being the top pumpkin producing state in the country. With its hot, dry summers, it’s the perfect place for growing pumpkins. The Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur brings visitors from far and wide to this little town. Owner Mac Condill grows 400 varieties of pumpkins on the farm that has been in his family for more than 150 years. He likes to say that his farm is the original “Old McDonald’s Farm.” Mac’s ancestors, named McDonald, were immigrants from Scotland in the 1850s. After a history of growing various grains, row crops, and livestock on the farm, the Condill family now focuses on growing cucurbits.
Mac explains that he has always grown pumpkins on the farm but became really interested in them when he was 12 years old. In the mid 1980s, when it became more difficult to make a living with traditional farming, Condill's family turned their focus to growing pumpkins. He has channeled that love of pumpkins into a profitable business that includes The Great Pumpkin Patch which hosts more than 50,000 visitors each fall, a popular bakery, and a growing seed business.
Mac, an agricultural alumnus of Illinois State University, says that he views the world through “cucurbit - colored glasses.” His great love is for the botanical family of Cucurbitaceae that includes pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, luffas, and melons. Mac is particularly interested in pumpkins, though he branches out to gourds, too. He has traveled the world in search of rare or unusual cucurbit seeds. After searching for varieties on six of the seven continents and in 30 different countries, Mac has been able to introduce a lot of pumpkin varieties to the United States. He celebrates the diversity of pumpkins and has a good collection of seeds of Native American and European varieties, as well as some from Africa, Australia and Asia.
Having 189 acres with which to work, Condill plants 63 acres in pumpkins each year, rotating the 63 acre plots with corn and soybean crops. The pumpkin seeds are first planted in a controlled environment and then transplanted 2 feet apart out in the fields. Because different species mature at different times, there are three different plantings to achieve maturity all at the right time.
Each year from September 15 to October 31 thousands of school children visit weekly, and as many as 12,000 people come out on the weekends, expressing delight in the pumpkins of many colors. It is only in the United States that people think of pumpkins as being only orange. Visitors to The Great Pumpkin Patch will realize that pumpkins come in many different shades of various colors that include white, green, blue, and striped. Pumpkin Patch guests also enjoy the vibrant colors of 5,000 chrysanthemums planted each year. The children encounter a petting zoo featuring several goats, pigs, exotic chickens, rabbits, a llama and an alpaca. In keeping with providing interests and activities for kids, there’s a children’s garden complete with a fountain.
Being a purist, Mac uses only hand - painted signs — many thousands of Them — around the farm. Another trademark of The Great Pumpkin Patch is the use of the Radio Flyer red wagons that many people remember with fond nostalgia from their childhood. He jokes that there are no red wagons to be found around Arthur, because he buys them all — 356 to date. In addition to farming, the Condills are also a family of educators.
A walk about the farm will lead one to note the nod to education and history, as two country school buildings have been moved to the farm. The Superior School building is an original one - room county school dated 1912 - 1949. Center School also carries the date of 1912. Both buildings are being historically restored and are used for educational talks and activities.
The Homestead Seeds
As significant as The Great Pumpkin Patch is, Mac Condill is about more than just having an agritourism attraction. He refers to his growing seed business as “the newest seed on the vine.” Having always had an interest in preserving diversity of cucurbits, Mac began collecting varieties and eventually selling them. The Homestead Seeds business was officially launched in 2008. He offers more than 200 heirloom varieties of squash, pumpkins and gourds in his online catalog, although he estimates that over the years, he has grown more than 800 varieties of cucurbits. He uniquely packages his seeds (at least 15 each) in small clear or amber – colored bottles with cork stoppers. Because of the rarity of many of his varieties, he does ask that customers limit their purchases to a maximum of three bottles of each variety.
Mac Condill takes pride in the purity and continuity of the cucurbits offered by The Homestead Seeds. He takes great care and very specific measures to ensure those qualities of the seeds he sells. Cucurbits are divided into four major species: maxima, mixta, moschata, and pepo:
• Cucurbita maxima is thought to have originated in South America more than 4,000 years ago and introduced into North America as early as the 16th century. This species includes Banana, Buttercup, and Hubbard squashes, as well as all of the giant pumpkins that weigh 100 pounds or more.
• Cucurbita mixta species includes several cultivars of pumpkin and winter squash. It is thought to be native to North America and probably cultivated by indigenous peoples before the Europeans arrived here. Mixta varieties are preferred in the United States because of their adaption to warm climates and their resistance to insect damage.
• Cucurbita moschata's origination is generally attributed to either Central America or northern South America. It includes Butternut squash and many field pumpkin varieties.
• Cucurbita pepo is believed to have first been domesticated in Mexico. This species is comprised primarily of summer squash including crookneck, straightneck, scallop, and zucchini, but can also include winter squashes such as jack-o-lantern type pumpkins and acorn squashes.
While each species will not cross pollinate one another, varieties within each species will cross pollinate. Therefore each cultivar grown requires an isolation of at least half a mile from other varieties within the same species. Because the Condills focus on producing many varieties of pumpkins for display and retail sales on the farm, Mac must contract with other growers for sufficient isolation plots to produce his pure seeds.
One of Mac’s passions is finding rare cucurbits that are not readily available to the public. One that he is especially proud of is the Zulu pumpkin that he brought back with him from South Africa. He says that it cannot be found anywhere else. The Zulu is a very dense and hard – shelled pumpkin that proved to be valuable in the sport of “Punkin Chunkin.” When Condill supplied the Zulu pumpkins to a team at the 2011 World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition in Delaware, the team broke the world record for the farthest pumpkin catapulted.
A visit to the Condill farm is not complete without a visit to The Homestead Bakery that opened on the property in 2006. Managed by Mac’s wife, Ginny, and staffed with local Amish bakers, it’s not surprising that the bakery features many items made with pumpkin: pumpkin bread, pumpkin bars and cookies, pumpkin butter, and even pumpkin pasta noodles. Anyone lacking a taste for pumpkin baked goods will also find a wide array of traditional cinnamon rolls, cookies, cakes and breads. All items are made fresh from scratch and are sold both wholesale and retail in the local stores and farmers’ markets, as well as at the bakery storefront.
Mac Condill appreciates the success he has achieved in the horticulture business and believes in giving back. He often gives freely of his time to speak to garden groups, both locally and traveling to other states to speak about the importance and significance of cucurbits. Having traveled extensively abroad, he has seen the need to support farmers and children in rural Kenya. He uses The Homestead Seeds to help support a Kenyan enterprise project that promotes self - sustaining business by channeling profits back into community development programs trying to achieve self - sustainability.
The Great Pumpkin Patch has garnered recognition when featured on the Martha Stewart Show three different times. Mac traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2010 to erect a huge squash display on the White House Lawn. He will also make his third appearance at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, Calif., this September to construct a magnificent squash tower in the exhibition hall.
What began more than 150 years ago with Scottish immigrants has become a family agricultural enterprise that is now expanding into the sixth generation as the Condill grandchildren find their niches within the growing organization. For more information, you can check out their website at www.the200acres.com.
Kathy McFarland is a life - long gardener and former English teacher with a love for writing, traveling, and anything outdoors. She and her husband, Mike, farm their 160 acres in the Missouri Ozarks.