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Today’s makers can be hobbyists, tinkerers, artists, designers, inventors, engineers, crafters, and others. I resist saying a maker is one thing and not another. I believe the term maker resonates with so many because it’s so inclusive and interdisciplinary. For our purposes, let’s define a maker simply as someone who creates and shares projects. There are all kinds of makers. Some people make bread (full disclosure: I am one of them). Other people make airplanes. Some make sweaters. Others make robots. And some people make pumpkin-hurlers.
On the first weekend after Halloween, The World Championship Punkin Chunkin contest takes place in Millsboro, Delaware, in an enormous cornfield that’s been bare since harvest. What started as a bar bet—who could hurl a pumpkin the farthest—has developed into an arms race, featuring air cannons mounted on the beds of semitrucks and a wide range of trebuchets, catapults, and hurlers. These days a nonprofit organization hosts the event, which has become so popular that it plans to move to the Dover International Speedway, having outgrown the cornfield.
I went to see it for myself in 2006 with Bill Gurstelle, author of Backyard Ballistics. The weekend was cold and clear. Large air cannons and trebuchets with patriotic team names such as Old Glory, Second Amendment, and Yankee Siege lined themselves up along the firing line, with over a hundred machines in a row, many of them flying American flags. One team was named Bad Hair Day, an all-woman crew in leathers. The teams vary in size, as does their equipment, and they compete in different classes. Most are family and friends from the same town, and the event has become a ritual encampment. There is a lot of standing around waiting for something to happen, trying to stay warm, and naturally, there is a lot of beer. Meanwhile, kids from the different camps are running free and playing. Then, for a brief period, everyone gets serious. Each person on the team moves into position; someone shouts “ready,” and someone yells: “Fire in the hole!” A small explosion of sorts occurs that blasts the pumpkin into the air and gets the crowd screaming.
In the event’s early years they used leftover pumpkins. Today the Punkin Chunkin challengers use eight- to ten-pound white pumpkins grown specially for this purpose. They are a bit harder than a jack-o’- lantern and more like a gourd. When one of them explodes in midair, it is said to have “pied.” Even on a clear day, it is quite difficult to see the pumpkin in air—it is just a tiny white speck that vanishes quickly against the autumn sky. Assuming the pumpkin didn’t “pie,” there’s a flurry of activity at its landing spot out in the field, as a half-dozen four-wheelers circle the spot to measure how far it got. The pumpkins generally travel 1,000 to 3,500 feet, and a few exceed 5,000 feet.
One of my favorite competitors was a centrifugal hurler named “Bad to the Bone” from nearby Milton, Delaware. The hurler is mounted on a tower that sits on the bed of a truck. When it starts, the arms begin spinning slowly, round and round. As it picks up speed, the arms begin to blur together. Finally, channeling the energy of the arms spinning at top speed, with the truck and tower shaking and wobbling, the pumpkin is hurled into the air. It is exhilarating to see, although I made sure I was standing safely back.
The machines were impressive, but frankly, once I had seen one lineup in action, I became more interested in the people who built them. The Great Emancipator is an enormous air cannon painted bright red. Its team is dressed all in red, like a NASCAR crew with insignias on ball caps and over the breast pockets of their shirts. The team’s leader is John Buchele, a tall man with a full beard from Jeffersonton, Virginia. I asked him casually how much Great Emancipator had cost him to build. He shrugged. “Over $70,000.”
I wondered where he got the money to do this, yet I knew it wasn’t about the money. This was a way to spend time together with the family, and have a sense of purpose and accomplishment. John and his team were very proud to be competing, and it was as much as about beating their own previous score as it was about beating anyone else.
I asked another man who had an air cannon mounted on a very large semitruck where he kept his machine when he wasn’t at the competition. He replied without hesitating, “It’s parked in my front yard.” I wondered if he was married.
Then I talked to Steve Seigars of Yankee Siege from Greenfield, New Hampshire, leader of a nine-person team, most of whom were also named Seigars. Yankee Siege is a huge trebuchet made of iron. It weighs over fifty thousand pounds and stands sixty-one feet tall, not counting its throwing arm. Each of its four wheels are ten feet in diameter. It is amazing to stand next to Yankee Siege. It made me feel small. Yankee Siege won its class the year I was there, with a throw of 1,476 feet. The previous year it had won with a world-record throw of 1,702 feet. By 2013 they had surpassed the half-mile mark of 2,835 feet with a new machine, Yankee Siege II.
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