Designer, inventor, maker of machines and pumpkin farmer, Jerry Howell is the brains behind Nessy, the first mechanical, pumpkin dinosaur. It all started when Jerry was nine years old living on his family’s 43-acre pig farm in Fonthill. One summer he watched as his neighbour and friend sold vegetables from the end of his driveway. It struck the entrepreneurial spirit in Jerry and he begged his mother for some vegetables from her vegetable garden to sell at the end of their driveway. As fate would have it, she gave him her pumpkins. Jerry filled a wheelbarrow of giant orange globes and to his amazement, he sold them all in one weekend. He made his first $28 dollars and he was hooked.
Each summer after that Jerry’s father would plant more and more pumpkins and Jerry would sell them all. In between pumpkin season Jerry kept himself busy with his hobby, tinkering with machines and figuring out how they worked.
It wasn’t long before Jerry decided to up his pumpkin game. In order to give his customers added value, he carved a series of Jack-O-Lanterns and lined them up on the front porch and across the front lawn of the farmhouse. It was a beautiful display and when word got out that there was something to see at Howells, more customers came and more pumpkins were sold. Jerry’s little pumpkin business was a huge success.
Through Jerry’s vision, the family gradually worked themselves out of pig farming and into pumpkin farming. Some would say that going from pigs to pumpkins was a natural evolution if pumpkins were more lucrative than pigs, but Jerry knew even then that this was more of a reinvention than an evolution.
Around the same time Jerry graduated from Niagara College earning his diploma in Computer Engineering Technology. With a diploma, his entrepreneurial instincts, a pumpkin farm, a neighbour with a penchant for collecting old, broken machinery and Jerry’s passion for tinkering with them, the rest could still not have been predicted so easily.
It was a lark, a joke, just a fun thing for him to do. Surrounded by pumpkins, one day Jerry stuck a few of them on steel rods, rigged a motor to see if they would move. They did. His imagination took over and at the end of the day Jerry had made his first dinosaur. Jerry used pumpkins as the body, impaling them onto spears that stood 70-feet tall (yes, Jerry has a BIG imagination!). He rigged a big hydraulic press so it moved, he built a head and face and called it Nessy, the world’s first mechanical pumpkin dinosaur. To Jerry, Nessy was a fun project but little did he realize the insatiable appetite his customers would have for animated vegetables.
From a single wheelbarrow piled with pumpkins to a display of Jack-O-Lanterns, from 40-acres of pumpkins to a giant robotic dinosaur, it wasn’t long before the original Howell pig farm was in fact, reinvented into one of the regions first agri-entertainment destinations. Everyone came out to see Nessy. When Nessy died, Jerry built Rex, a bigger and better pumpkin dinosaur.
Encouraged, Jerry built a coup of singing chickens, a talking donkey, a skeleton band and other singing and dancing displays that children loved. They added a variety of food from pumpkin donuts to strawberry funnel cakes (that’s when Jerry began growing his own hydroponic strawberries). Classes of school children came out for tours and weekend wagon rides were booked solid; they built a corn maze, a pumpkin slingshot, scarecrow alley and a haunted house. They sold Indian corn and bales of hay along with thousands and thousands of pumpkins. The pig farm that supported Jerry’s family now employed over 140 students from mid September to the end of October.
The road to success wasn’t always as straight as it appeared. Howell’s reputation as a farm theme park grew just as the pumpkin business declined. “Big box stores began selling pumpkins at reduced prices, I couldn’t compete,” says Jerry. Families stopped buying pumpkins from the farm but were coming in larger and larger numbers for the entertainment and for the display of expertly carved Jack-o-lanterns that still line the front lawn of the farmhouse.
But if pumpkins were a dying business, animated farm vegetables and talking animals was a booming one. Jerry began selling singing chicken coups and talking donkeys across Canada and throughout the United States. He filled orders from Holland, Britain, Scotland, Japan and New Zealand. Jerry became world famous.
In the beginning it was large farm markets that were ordering his mechanical characters but the word spread and Jerry began custom crafting animated displays and paintball shooting theatres for theme parks and grocery stores. As his clientele got more sophisticated, so did his materials and methods. Jerry was getting better and better.
Each order Jerry makes is custom crafted. He starts with a conceptual drawing and builds an animated display from the mechanical insides to life-like outsides. The sizes of his shows can be anywhere from 2-feet tall or like Rex, 70-feet. He builds faces out of silicone flesh and wooden boats out of Styrofoam blocks. He paints the eyeballs and fashions the shoes. He builds the moving mechanics and synchronizes the music and voices. The barns on the farm that once held tractors, pig bays and plowing implements, is now full of 3-foot talking avocados, a 9-foot animated fishermen, zombie paintball theatres and musical skeletons. The barns that were once ready to fix any tractor now looks more like a theatre prop shop. There isn’t a creature Jerry can’t craft and build life-like.
Since that day Jerry estimates he’s built and sold hundreds of animated animals from chickens to cows, skeletons, donkeys, singing cobs of corn, alligators and yes, he’s still crafting dinosaurs.
Over the years, this inventor of talking vegetables and farm animals has finely honed his craft and his creations evolved to Disney-like quality. Most of them talk, mouths perfectly synched to their voices. Others are motion activated ready to startle and delight anyone who walks by and others play based on two to three minute intervals.
Today Howell Family Pumpkin Farm is one giant pumpkin entertainment centre, the world’s best animatronics display and the home of the workshop that brings farm animals and vegetables to life. Rex is still the king of Howell’s fantasy land, the Jack-O-Lantern display still cascades across the front lawn but now it’s dwarfed by an elaborate, themed hay display. Just last year the theme was The Wizard of Oz and it included 15-foot characters made from giant bales of hay. They were fashioned into the likeness of Dorothy, the cowardly lion, the scarecrow, the tin man, a tiger and a bear. The beautiful creations towered over the children that ran circles around them singing happy songs along to The Wizard of Oz music that was pumped throughout Howell’s theme park.
People still flock to Howell’s during the short, six week pumpkin season in the fall. It’s sad to know that there are very few pumpkins grown on the farm today, just enough for their retail and theme park needs. I wonder if part of Howell’s is considering staying open all summer long to take advantage of the new crop of animated vegetables and animals. It’s the way the farming goes in Fonthill.
This year Rex turns 20-years old and Jerry promises to have a bigger and better show than ever before. I can’t wait to see it.
Check the website for hours and fun activities, ahowlinggoodtime.com.
Written By: Lynn Ogryzlo