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The mysterious Pumpkin impaled on the top of Tower

Twenty Three years ago, somebody impaled a 60-pound pumpkin 170 off the ground on this spire at Cornell University. Nobody knows who did this or how they did it.

A large pumpkin impaled on the spire 173 feet up caught the attention of Cornell students, faculty, and staff who were strolling by McGraw Tower on a brisk autumn morning on Wednesday, October 8, 1997.

The pumpkin remained atop McGraw Tower for 158 days, enduring a grueling fall, a severe winter, and a brief spring. Two questions were posed by Cornellians: Whodunit? Is it true?

No one was aware.

Like swim tests, Dragon Day, or commemorating Theodore Zinck, Cornell history is intricately linked to the mystery surrounding the pumpkin.

The mysterious Pumpkin impaled on the top of Tower 1
On a bright day in October 1997, the impaled pumpkin sits atop McGraw Tower. University Photography File Photo

Thanks to coverage in The New York Times in late October, word of the practical joke gained long-lasting notoriety. Until Halloween, the Cornell Daily Sun published a daily “Pumpkin Watch” feature. Additionally, Matt Lauer conducted a live campus interview with Sun Editor-in-Chief Hilary Krieger ’98 for the “Today” show. A pumpkin-themed story and photo from the Associated Press made their way into hundreds of newspapers. Radio interviews were accepted from all around the country by the Cornell News Service, which was the forerunner of the Media Relations Office. MTV and CNN both ran reports.

Playfully, the campus lost its mind. Pumpkin lyrics for the Alma Mater were created by Cornell Chorus and Cornell Glee Club. A webcam from Olin Library provided live images 24 hours a day, which was new at the time.

The mysterious Pumpkin impaled on the top of Tower 2
University Photography File Photo. The Cornell pumpkin — ravaged by winter — sits in a display case in April 1998 in the Memorial Room, as a crowd listens to the Kingsbury Commission’s finding: “It is a pumpkin.”

The university constructed scaffolding to repoint the mortar on McGraw Tower in January 1998, after a century. The partially rotten pumpkin remained intact.

Provost Don M. Randel organized a competition for students to judge whether or not the pumpkin was real early in the spring semester.

Pumpkin samples were snared by physics majors Jon Branscomb ’98, Eldar Noe ’98, Fred Ciesla ’98, and Samuel J. Laroque ’98 using a remote-controlled balloon and some Rube Goldberg creativity. They discovered that the cored gourd provided ventilation, enabling the pumpkin to dry naturally while writing a thirty-page report. According to the report, it had turned into “a leathery husk, that could cling to the spire for decades.”

The mysterious Pumpkin impaled on the top of Tower 3
Hilary Dorsch Wong, of the Cornell University Library Rare and Manuscript Collections, holds the Kingsbury Commission certificate proving that the pumpkin was actually a pumpkin. Photo Credit: Blaine Friedlander/Cornell Chronicle

The media excitement persisted. The Chorus and Glee Club sang, “Far above Cayuga’s waters, with its waves of blue, stands our noble orange pumpkin, glorious to view,” during a feature report about the pumpkin that aired on ABC News’ “World News Tonight” in March. The lyrics were displayed at the bottom of the screen, and viewers could follow along with a bouncing pumpkin.

Randel was supposed to climb McGraw Tower in a gondola lifted by a crane on Friday, March 13, 1998, in order to get the pumpkin.

The group won top prize of $250, and each team member was given a signed lithograph of Charles Schulz’s “The Great Pumpkin” cartoon and a Cornell pumpkin T-shirt.

For the removal, Cornell faculty, staff, and students congregated in Ho Plaza. Many wore celebratory pumpkin T-shirts, Cornell dairy served pumpkin ice cream, and staff members created cakes shaped like pumpkins and the tower.

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However, mishaps with pumpkin parties do occur. A gust of wind caused the gondola to crash into the pumpkin during the crane test, breaking it and sending it smashing onto the scaffold planks, frozen solid from the previous night’s chill.

Following the pumpkin’s removal from the scaffold, Randel appointed John Kingsbury, a plant biologist, to head a commission to investigate it.

The culprits behind the pumpkin haven’t come to light twenty years later. However, in April 1998, the issue of whether the gourd was real was settled. The Kingsbury commission verified the object with a fitting fanfare in the Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall, summarizing it in four words: “It is a pumpkin.”

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