For one month each year, one of the Napa Valley’s busier attractions draws visitors not with wine grapes but with the ubiquitous totem of Halloween – crates upon crates of pumpkins.
On a straw-covered expanse near Highways 29 and 12/121, dozens spent a sun-drenched Sunday in south Napa searching for Halloween decorations at the Stanly Lane Pumpkin Patch, which for 37 years has been a seasonal attraction to residents like Amme Perry in search of pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn and other adornments of autumn.
“We’ve been coming for eight years, ever since we moved here,” she said shortly after arriving for her annual pumpkin-hunting expedition with her daughter and two sons. “Every year, we discuss what kinds we want in the car; the kids always have an image of what they want, but then they never want carve it – they want me to – although they spend a long time with crayons and paper designing it,” she quipped.
Having drawn up the carvings in the form of ghosts, cats and zombies for Halloweens past, Perry’s children — Vivienne Soulsburg, 11, Henrik, 8, and 6-year-old Calvin Soulsburg — arrived at the patch still unsure of how to top the family’s past efforts. But as they and their mother passed by endless balls of orange, white and gray-green, inspiration struck Henrik.
“I was thinking of a football player, catching a pass one-handed …” he thought aloud before the idea snapped into focus – a pumpkin sculpted into the likeness of Odell Beckham Jr., the flamboyant wide receiver for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
Dozens of children, parents and grandparents already were strolling the patch at half past noon, inspecting all manner of fruit from the palm-size half-pounders to the 50-pound behemoths that could take the most intricate cuts and patterns for elaborate jack-o-lanterns to show off at front doors.
Rows of corn and parked, aged farm tractors lent the pumpkin patch a rustic touch rarely seen in wine country. Across the property, youngsters eagerly clambered the 13 layers of hay bales that formed a straw pyramid overlooking the pumpkin field, before jumping into a tube slide to speed their way down again, often with their parents ready to snap photos of them as they emerged from the spout.
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The straw ziggurat helped draw one Marin County family to the Napa pumpkin field for the first time on Sunday.
“A friend posted a picture of his son on the pyramid and I thought, ‘Boy, that sounds like a lot of fun,’” recalled Chris Craver, who had arrived for the afternoon with his wife Amanda and their sons Elliott, 6, and Henry, 4, to buy gourds for Halloween and Thanksgiving. “This is something more than a pumpkin patch – we could get a nice photo for the grandparents here. It’s wonderful here; we’d come back here again for sure.”
Outside in the fields as well as under a pole-mounted canopy, the array of pumpkins ranged from the familiar creamy-orange hue to orange-red, gray and olive-green – as well as a surprisingly large quantity of white-hulled ones, which pumpkin-patch staffer Billy Wilcoxson described as the market’s second most popular variety.
“Everyone wants the white ones – they’re really good to cook, but they also make the other pumpkins stand out and pop,” said Wilcoxson, whose father, also named Billy, began the pumpkin sales in 1983 on a onetime vineyard site. The market now opens in late September and does business seven days a week through Halloween, stocked by a constant supply of 50-bin shipments trucked in from Green Valley in Solano County, a growing area “as local as we can make it.”
Because many customers seek pumpkins that will last into November to become Thanksgiving decorations in the home, Wilcoxson advises buyers to avoid bruising them, to promptly wipe off any rainwater or spillage to prevent mold from forming, and to keep them out of direct sunlight when possible.
On top of the store and barbecue restaurant the family has opened on site in recent years, the pumpkin operation virtually takes over the site, according to Wilcoxson – from the assembly of the pyramid from 2,300 hay bales to the hosting of visiting elementary school classes this week.
“It’s a lot going on here for a month,” he said. “I’m up at 5 a.m. and working till 8 p.m. from before the sun is up to after the sun is down, every day. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun – it’s all for the kids. This brings a lot of people together, that’s for sure.”