A Rite of Autumn

Come fall, orange is in at Country Pumpkins in Caledonia

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

It sometimes happens that life’s bright moments spring from unexceptional beginnings. So it was when Dwight Colson accepted some leftover pumpkin seeds from his brother in Kentucky 15 years ago.

“I brought ’em home, planted three acres, and we sold out of everything,” the Caledonia farmer recalls. But no one expected what was to come. Today, Dwight and his wife, Jean, preside over Country Pumpkins. For seven weeks each fall, their Pine Meadows Farm in north Lowndes County erupts in a day-glow sea of pumpkins, ornamental gourds, winter squash and children. Everywhere, children.

This rite of autumn, this red-circled tradition on the calendar is a classic example of agritourism done right. Take a real working farm, a lot of open air, add assortments of hay, corn, tractors and such, mix in a good dose of squeals and laughter, and you have one of the fastest growing tourism niches in the country — one that generates approximately $150 million annually in Mississippi, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

But this organic oasis on Caledonia’s Spruill Road specializes in something more: memory-making.

FARM DAYS
A crackling sound — a husky, dry rustle — sounds in a wall of spent cornstalks on a sunny fall Saturday. A second later, two pre-teens, a boy and a girl, blow their cover, bursting from the brown thicket to startle a friend navigating Country Pumpkins’ corn maze. All three flail and hug, giggling irrepressibly.

Before long, a laughing gaggle of children and parents return from their hayride. The farm tractor chugs to a halt, and kids scamper in all directions — some to play in a cotton wagon, the straw maze, corn kernel “sand boxes” or the Maypole tire swings. Others claim a little wagon to pull through the pumpkin patch with mom or dad, carefully picking out the specimen that’s just right.

With more than 70 varieties of pumpkins, decorative gourds and squash, choices can be boggling. Pumpkins range from diminutive white Baby Boos and Jack Be Littles to the big boys of harvest — massive Wyatt’s Wonders and Atlantic Giants that can top out at 100 pounds or more. The squat, deeply-ribbed Fairytale pumpkins seem plucked from a dark chest dreamed up by the Brothers Grimm. Elegant white Luminas are ripe for painting or baking, and red-orange Cinderellas evoke “once upon a time.”

“We try to find a new variety to grow every year, but sometimes coming up with something different to add isn’t easy … God did stop, you know,” laughs Jean, who grew up in Caledonia.

The couple met in the early ’70s, when Dwight went through pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base and Jean was enrolled at Mississippi University for Women. Jean thought she had herself a “jet ace” and was going to see the world. “But when he got out, all he wanted to do was farm — and here I am, still in Caledonia,” she says jokingly.

Not that either of them would change a thing.

CALENDAR WATCH
Of the hundreds of acres the family farms in pine trees and crops, the 30 or so acres dedicated to pumpkins and gourds may seem a minor player. But that harvest is the one anticipated by families counting down to the third week of September, the traditional opening of Country Pumpkins.

The seven weeks that follow are flush with dozens of birthday parties, school, church and college groups, extra help hired and at least a couple of thousand visitors. Busier each autumn, the Colsons have added a concession stand, restrooms and a spacious deck — a far cry from the day Dwight first suggested filling a couple of sand boxes with corn to give kids something to do while mom shopped for pumpkins and paid at an honor box.

It’s labor intensive. For Dwight and Jean, though, the reward can be summed up in the joy of the children, like one little boy from near West Point who pronounced to his teacher, “This is the best day of my life!”

There is no admission charge at Country Pumpkins, although there are modest fees for some of the activities the Colsons have to hire others to help with. The goal is more about providing children a unique experience from a simpler time, to give families a place to bond. And maybe it’s to pass something on to kids who have never set foot on a farm, run in a wide, open space, seen a cornstalk or associated a cotton boll with the clothes on their backs.

“This is our chance to share God’s creation with them,” Jean says. “There is such variety and beauty in it, and you think how amazing that is.”

And for someone, somewhere, it just could turn out to be the best day of their life.