Paul Wolfe sat on his nearly 400-pound pumpkin, his feet dangling above the ground on one side. “It’s not that hard to grow giant pumpkins,” said the 12-year-old Hermantown boy.
“The hardest part is snipping the stem. It’s kind of like cutting the umbilical cord on a baby. When you snip the pumpkin stem, everything is slowly evaporating.”
“I’ve been taking care of this thing for eight months. It’s my child,” he added.
It’s a milestone year for Paul, who has been growing giant pumpkins since kindergarten, said his mother, Holly. This year, he hit his record at 398 pounds and another at 360 pounds. His big’un is headed to a neighbor’s, where it will be displayed near the road.
“Dan reckons this is the biggest pumpkin in Duluth. I’m pretty impressed,” Paul said.
Dan Tanner started the giant pumpkin game in the 1980s, and today, he’s sort of an unofficial “pumpking” of the Duluth-Superior area, consistently growing several-hundred-pound gourds that are displayed at the Lake Superior Zoo and featured in local news.
His largest to date is 615 pounds in 2007.
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Tanner and his partner Valerie Brady planned to haul his 250-pounder to the zoo this week, and it can be a tedious process.
“Dan’s getting kind of tired of doing this,” said Brady. “It’s getting hard to find people to help move it. Dan thinks in a year or two, maybe he’ll quit and Paul will grow the pumpkins for the zoo. That’s been the theory all along.
“‘That’s your protege,’” Brady continued.
Getting connected with Tanner has been a great help, said Wolfe’s parents Jonathan and Holly. Tanner has shared seeds bred to produce giant gourds, and he shares insight about hail cover, said Holly Wolfe.
Consulting Tanner, their son planted this year’s pumpkins at the top of the hill, where it’d get hotter temperatures, and the vine could sprawl down the slope, said Jonathan Wolfe.
And sometimes, Tanner’s support is simply relating.
During the News Tribune visit, Paul discovered a hole near the stem of his 360-pounder.
The disappointment was evident in his voice. “I’ve had that happen,” said Tanner.
The two families connected in 2018 after Brady read a News Tribune story about the then-9-year-old’s pumpkin-growing ambitions. She recalled being moved by Wolfe’s passion, so she and Tanner reached out to share the wealth of wisdom.
Soon after their first phone call, the families met in person.
“They said it’ll be dark soon and you won’t be able to see the pumpkins. We had food on the stove, and we turned it off to get over there,” recalled Holly Wolfe with a laugh.
It’s been a growing friendship since. Paul will stay weekends at the Tanner/Brady home, helping with gardening chores, watching their golden retriever, or fishing with Tanner.
“None of Dan’s grandchildren are all that interested in this kind of stuff, so to have a kid who is interested in so many of the things that Dan likes to do and is so passionate about it, that was really cool.
“He’s going to be our adopted grandkid,” said Brady.
Asked about Tanner, Paul said, he’s not quite a mentor, “He’s more like family.”
In separate interviews with the News Tribune, they described the same standards for a pretty pumpkin: orange coloration, round and with “little freckles.”
Tanner said the allure of the craft is simple: “All of a sudden, you can produce a pumpkin that’s over 300 pounds, over 400 pounds, that’s what’s amazing, and their shapes are so different.”
While Paul’s plans to go big are still in the works, Tanner is content with smaller sizes these days.
“When you’re 72, it’s not as much fun to lift the 615-pound pumpkin and all my friends, they’re too old now, they don’t want to help me. So, I don’t mind having the 300-pound range, and a lot of those are in much better shape,” Tanner said.
Of his protege’s work this year, he added: “He’s done a great job.”