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All hail the king — weigh-in is Wednesday

I am really looking forward to Wednesday night. That evening, I plan to stroll the streets of Barnesville while waiting for a king to be crowned.

It’s become an annual tradition at The Times Leader for me to cover the King Pumpkin Weigh-In on Wednesday during the week of the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival. It’s almost always my gig for a few reasons: First, I’ve been there many times and understand the process well. Second, I know many of the people who participate or turn out to watch, so it’s easy for me to approach and talk with those who are on hand. And third, and perhaps most importantly, because Barnesville is close to home for me. That means that even though it is an event that runs late into the evening, I can save the drive back to Martins Ferry or Wheeling and instead a story and photos quickly via email, making it on time to meet all our deadlines.

I have always loved working as a reporter. Being an editor is fulfilling in many ways, but it is not nearly as much fun. When I was a full-time reporter, I started nearly every day by visiting most of the police departments in Belmont County. Then I was off to find a couple of stories to write, checking in at mayors’ offices, dropping by at schools for special events, roaming through business districts or even visiting people at their homes.

When I had gathered the information I needed for the day, I would sit down and write up my reports. That was it – talk to people all day long and then write about what I had learned. It was a perfect job for me, in terms of personal enjoyment.

As an editor, my days are usually more complicated than that. I must ensure staff schedules are in place and adjusted as needed. I respond to dozens of emails and voice messages, some of which aren’t even intended for my department or me. I provide guidance to reporters and other staff members. I plan the next day’s edition. And I spend a good bit of time reading the stories my reporters have written that day, among the many other things that might pop up.

But there are a few things, such as the weigh-in, that I have held back for myself to cover. So, why is that event important to me?

It’s pretty simple, really. I love Barnesville and “my part” of Belmont County.

I was born in Barnesville and raised in Belmont, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Pumpkin Festival. I remember performing in the Giant Pumpkin Parade (or at least a portion of it) when I was just 4 or 5 years old. I was enrolled in a dance studio in the village that was operated by Candy Bruce, who today is better known as Candace Fleagane. Several of my friends, including Stacie Wees and Gwynn Beyer, were part of my class, and I have vague memories of lining up and marching through the streets of Barnesville with them, carrying my baton.

Later, I marched the entire parade route at least five times with the Union Local High School band. Marching band was always one of my favorite school activities, and all of my closest friends were involved. Being part of the Pumpkin Festival only made the marching band experience better for me.

During those same years, it was pretty common for me to spend at least an afternoon or evening at the festival each year with some of those same friends. We would ride the carnival rides, play the games, perhaps stop to listen to a band or watch a contest and, of course, eat some of the “fair food.”

The lemon shake-up drinks were always my favorite, and I usually had a funnel cake or elephant ear as well. Occasionally, if I was feeling responsible enough to eat a real “meal,” I would have a steak or sausage sandwich. Many of my friends would dine on something pumpkin flavored, but that usually was not my choice.

In addition to all the things I have always loved about the festival itself, I have come to really enjoy the weigh-in. Over the years, I have become familiar with the regular entrants, such as Daniel Stephens Jr. and Daniel Stephens Sr., who grew the top two entries in 2015, and Todd and Donna Skinner, who had a state record-smashing royal gourd in 2017.

It’s fascinating to hear them talk about the keys to their success. Starting with good genes in the seeds they choose to plant, they talk about how long it takes to raise an enormous squash, what they do to overcome overly wet or dry conditions and how they hold their breath during the final days leading up to the weigh-in, hoping their potential prize winner won’t crack or begin to rot where it lies on the ground. Stephens Sr. once compared the process to raising a newborn baby.

I also really enjoy meeting people who bring their giant pumpkins to the festival from afar. I have met entrants from many other communities in the Buckeye State and from other places, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.

But the growers aren’t the only people I meet at the weigh-in. Each year on Wednesday, I get to congratulate the festival queen and her court. Sometimes, these are young ladies I already know (or whose parents I know). They are always gracious and ready to pose for a photo with the scale-tipping contest entries.

I also talk to many people in the audience during the weigh-in. Often, I encounter people I know, including folks like Chris Graham, who I have worked with at area schools. Occasionally I run into people who knew my dad, such as his old friend James “Robo” Robison. In the past, I have bumped into Sally Neal, my old piano teacher, who died earlier this year.

I also meet parents who are bringing their young children to the weigh-in for the first time. And I often encounter people who no longer live in Barnesville, but who choose to “come home” for the festival.

Those are just some of the reasons I am looking forward to Wednesday evening. If you don’t already have plans for that night, consider coming out to join in the fun. Maybe I will see you there.

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