The Keene Pumpkin Riot

by John Delach

Once upon a time, Keene, the little city in southwestern New Hampshire, was known as a transportation center. Three railroads met in this city providing service throughout New England. The Boston & Maine Railroad even had engine shops there. But railroad traffic waned after World War II and by 1970 almost all of the tracks had been torn up. As the railways disappeared, the city maintained itself with light manufacturing but it also became known as a college town. Institutions domiciled there include River Valley Community College and Antioch University of New England but the crown jewel is Keene State College.


From 1991 to 2013, Keene also hosted an annual pumpkin festival that attracted growing attention. The first year produced a modest count of 600 pumpkins. Then organizers and supporters went to work and claimed their first Guinness World Record the following year with only 1,628. Over the next eight years, the festival set six additional world records taking the count up to 23,727. The ninth and most current record was set in 2013 in an all-out effort to break the existing record held by Boston of 30,128 pumpkins which Beantown stole from Keene in 2006. Keene efforts succeeded as businesses, fraternal organizations, schools and individuals contributed 30,581 jack-o’-lanterns on October 19, 2013.


But the good times came to a sudden and dramatic end the following October 20th when word went out over social media that the 2014 festival was a cause to party and party hard. The great Keene Pumpkin Riot began simply enough when a house party in one of the off-campus buildings near Keene State’s campus on Winchester Street out grew its space with party goers pouring onto the street.


The Boston Globe reported, “Outmatched officers struggled to contain the disruption as it spilled onto nearby streets. Showing little respect for New Hampshire state fruit or a community event meant to honor it, the rioters smashed windows, slashed tires and overturned dumpsters.”


Graphic scenes filled the national news airways of shirtless teenagers and young adults launching filled and empty 1.75 liter liquor bottles at police and anyone or anything else deemed a target. They started fires, tore up street signs, flipped cars and created “…a general atmosphere of mayhem.”


Keene’s finest retaliated by donning riot gear and attacking the mob with mace, pepper spray and tear gas. As things escalated aggrieved students chanted, “Bring out the BearCat,” referring to a military surplus armored vehicle owned by the Keene police. Reinforcements arrived in the form of New Hampshire State Troopers and other law enforcement members, some from as far away as Massachusetts. “At one point a helicopter flew over the off-campus neighborhoods of Keene telling partiers to go inside.


No records were kept to determine how many of the 21,912 pumpkins from the festival were destroyed by these mostly young men who believed “…they were just fighting for their right to party.” Eighty arrests were made and Keene State ultimately disciplined 170 of its students for their actions. It seemed that the same social media sites that attracted the raucous party goers also identified them to authorities.


The festival sponsors paid the ultimate price. On April 2, 2015, the Keene City Council by a vote of 13-1 refused to renew their permit. Sadness gripped the Granite State until just twenty-two days later, plucky Laconia in the Lakes Region stepped up to the plate and announced that they would host the 2015 festival.


Was this an act of insanity? You be the judge. There is a possibility that the same mob will migrate to Laconia although its institutions of higher education are either community colleges or on-line schools. Also, Laconia is currently most famous for its annual late spring, annual motorcycle week.


One would think that if this city has been able to host a bikers’ week for 92 years with crowds that can reach over 430,000 people and survive, a one-day pumpkin festival should be a day at the beach.