By MARG JACKSONWhat are you doing the first Sunday in November?
If you lived in Knights Ferry, that question would be answered for you every year with a few simple words … the Annual Pumpkin Roll.
Going strong for more than 50 years, the Knights Ferry Pumpkin Roll brings competitors from around the region and even as far away as the Bay Area to try their hand at rolling a gourd along Main Street. Closest to the line wins.
Knights Ferry, just a few miles east of Oakdale along Highway 108, is known for its picturesque location along the Stanislaus River and its historic covered bridge.
But come fall, pumpkins take center stage.
“I helped start it,” said longtime Knights Ferry resident Lee Shearer of the Pumpkin Roll.
He served as the self-proclaimed “Grand Poohbah” of the event for decades.
“I had a party; in another life with another wife and about 4 a.m. a couple of inebriated cowboys decided to throw pumpkins around in the Community Clubhouse,” Shearer explained. “I said let’s see how far we can roll ‘em and the next day we decided we would have a contest.”
Getting the inebriated cowboys onto the street helped save the clubhouse from potential harm from smashing pumpkins and ultimately gave birth to a unique ritual of fall in the 209.
“It just kept growing from there,” Shearer said of continuing the tradition. “Everybody had a good time.”
Shearer explained that he and Lucille Ulrich combined forces to draw up the ‘rules’ of the contest and the first Sunday in November was chosen as the official date. That also happens to be the Sunday after Halloween, so pumpkins are still readily available.
For many years, the pumpkins for the competition have been provided by Manteca-based George Perry and Sons. The 2016 Pumpkin Roll, according to the trophies presented, was the 53rd annual, making the 2017 edition the 54th time rollers will gather to send the pumpkins down the street.
Two competition sites are offered, with the younger set taking to the tennis courts adjacent to the hamlet’s Community Clubhouse on Main Street for their ‘roll off’ that starts at noon.
After the tiny tots have gone, the competition moves to Main Street, where the senior rollers, 65 and older, start the pumpkins on their way. Then, by age group and with both male and female divisions for each, rollers are from 6 to 12; 13 to 18; and 19 and older.
“We had about 400 rollers last year,” Shearer said of the 2016 competition.
Based on the age divisions, there are ‘finish lines’ marked out at various distances from the starting point; the roller in each age division that gets closest to the line wins.
Some choose to stand in the middle of the roadway, aiming their pumpkin down the double solid yellow line; others go one side or the other and there can be as many delivery styles as there are rollers – the only rule is to send the pumpkin on its way and hope it stops close to the line.
There is no entry fee, though Shearer said donations are accepted and any made are turned over to the Community Club for expenses in keeping the local clubhouse open for residents to enjoy, helping with insurance, maintenance and the like.
In addition, the first Sunday of each month is known as ‘Breakfast Sunday in the Ferry,’ when the Odd Fellows Hall is the site for a hearty breakfast at a nominal charge. Many people fortify themselves for the roll by first stopping to eat. Also on sale during the day are pumpkin rolls – the kind with cream cheese and fluffy cake – to take home from the event.
There’s a craft fair set up in the Community Clubhouse as well, with a few booths spilling out onto the adjacent tennis courts.
Though Shearer has officially ‘retired’ from overseeing the annual roll, he said it is a well-attended event every year, and typically makes for a great day of family fun.
“We get people from Modesto, Oakdale, Sonora, Stockton, the Bay Area,” Shearer reported. “They come to win a genuine simulated gold trophy.”
That, and bragging rights for the year before the next group of rollers tries to take them down.
“We’ve had some rolls that have been within inches of the line,” said Shearer.
With competition taking over Main Street, locals and visitors alike are focused solely on the Pumpkin Roll that first Sunday in November.
“It’s just a community fun thing,” Shearer added. “It’s fun, intense nonsense.” ■