Pumpkin festival brings thousands to tiny Missouri town

The numbers seem fabricated or at least exaggerated. They’re not. Every year in October, tens of thousands of visitors descend on Hartsburg, a mid-Missouri town of 105 residents.

This year’s Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival, which took place Saturday and Sunday, marked the 27th iteration of the event. The festival has grown exponentially since its inception, and it’s no longer just about picking pumpkins out of the patch.

Virtually the entire town transforms into an open-air market where attendees can find anything from ornate handmade wood signs to enormous smoked turkey legs.

You won’t find a big corporate presence, though — most of the 170 vendors are Missouri entrepreneurs like “Cowboy” Chris Theerman. Based in Wright City, Theerman takes his barbecue sauce and belt buckle stand all over the state. He said the annual trip to Hartsburg always proves fruitful.

“This place is fantastic. The people treat me like I’m hometown people,” Theerman said. “This is probably the smallest town I do any festivals or anything in, and it’s probably the biggest festival I do. It’s always in my top three every year for sales.”

Once the weekend ends, Theerman saddles up for the next town. Traveling vendors like Theerman are certainly economic engines, but the true impact and responsibility of hosting thousands of visitors can only be realized by those who live or work in Hartsburg.

Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival vendors say visitors who venture back to the town after attending the annual festival prove most valuable to their businesses. | Jeremy Turley/Missouri Business Alert

Festival organizer Jeri Cooper said “it’s quite a feat” to put the event on every year. The organizers must win the approval of the city government and anyone who lives in Hartsburg’s town center.

Cooper said residents and local businesses are usually agreeable to the idea of thousands of strangers coming into their normally quiet town, in part because of the economic activity the festival brings.

“It helps the economy here,” Cooper said. “It helps the city continue to grow and keep up with the infrastructure they need to keep up with. It’s very nice to see that all these people want to see our town.”

The city receives about $20,000 for hosting the festival and an annual gift from the organizers to help maintain infrastructure, Cooper said. Last year, they fixed the roof of a pavilion that collapsed when a tree fell on it.

The city is not the only entity that realizes significant benefits from the weekend.

For Hartsburg’s permanent businesses, the impact of the festival cannot be overstated. Jason Huddleston, the general manager of local bar The Hitching Post, said the festival always boosts sales during the weekend, but the most positive impact on the business comes days and weeks later when patrons return for the second time.

“Anytime 50,000 people come to town, that’s a good day,” Huddleston said. “The best way to win from it is to get some new people out to check out the place and hopefully get them to come back for the rest of the year. That’s how it really affects everything.”

Dora Walker, a waitress at the family-owned restaurant 35th and Main, said the family moved from California a little over a year ago to work in the restaurant business. The new restaurant opened in August, and Walker said, like Huddleston, she hoped the exposure would make regulars out of casual festivalgoers.

“(The festival) means getting our name out there for those that don’t know that we’re here,” Walker said. “A lot of it is just getting people to know that we’re here.”

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