Signal of the Season: The history behind Helena’s Pumpkin House
Published 8:52 am Wednesday, October 5, 2022
By Michelle Love
Photos By Chris VanCleave and Jeremy Raines
October signals the arrival of many things in Helena: the changing of the leaves, the various neighborhood Witches Rides and especially the return of the Helena Pumpkin House.
Helena residents should be very familiar with the Pumpkin House. For the past three years, members of the city transform the pergola in the center of Old Town into a structure that screams of all things fall: Approximately 400 pumpkins from the Finley Ave. Farmers Market with twinkling string lights, scarecrows and more. Residents of the city are welcome to walk around and through the pergola, take photos, videos and make fun fall memories in the house’s month-long duration.
Three years ago, City Councilmember and then-Beautification Board member Chris VanCleave was working with his fellow Board members on coming up with ideas for what to do for fall. VanCleave had been in Little Rock, Arkansas filming segments for P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home Retreat Show when he saw that Smith had a pumpkin house structure on his farm. VanCleave said Smith showed him how to build the house, and VanCleave presented the idea to the Board when he returned to Helena.
VanCleave said the pergola was the perfect choice for the house as it is “a natural gathering spot.”
VanCleave worked with Public Works Director Jason Poe and Poe’s team on how they could properly execute the idea. Together, VanCleave, Poe and his team worked to get the house going. It premiered and they came and helped me set it up and get it going. The Pumpkin House was an instant success, and the next year, VanCleave worked with Kim Edwards, who took over the Beautification Board, to improve the house.
“We are constantly looking for ways to continuously improve things, so we figured out a better way to stage the pumpkins,” he said. “They wanted to add scarecrows and hay and kind of beef it up a little more, so we did that. This time, the Board had a hands-on experience building the house, but the Public Works team continues to play an integral part in how we make the house happen every year.”
They begin planning the house around early August, and VanCleave said the actual assembly of the house takes a whole day. Excitement around the house grows with each year, and VanCleave said the house represents all the good things about fall in Helena.
“When I think about fall in Helena, I think about the falling leaves, the Pumpkin House and football,” he said. “I have heard people say that it signals a change of season in Helena. It’s something kids of all ages enjoy. I’ve seen small children just pitch a fit over it and also grandmas. You know, it just makes everybody smile, and to have started that during a period of time when we all needed to smile, it was a good thing for us to do. It still means a lot to people.”
The debut date for this year’s Pumpkin House is Saturday, Oct. 22. The house will be up through Thanksgiving before the Board begins decorating for Christmas season. How Helena celebrates holidays in general, is just another aspect that makes Helena unique, according to VanCleave.
“We try very hard to maintain that small town feel,” he said. “Even though we’ve seen a lot of growth in the last 10 years, these fun holiday things help bring us together and keep us close and focused on our families and being together.”