History: Cary, the Gourd Capital of the World
Cary, NC — Did you know that Cary used to be known as the “Gourd Capital of the World?” I talked to Kris Carmichael from Page-Walker to learn more about this odd piece of history.
Cary’s Claim to National Fame
Gourds were Cary’s first claim to national fame.
That’s a quote from Around and About Cary by Thomas M. Byrd.
From this book, Kris Carmichael (Operations & Program Supervisor at the Page-Walker Arts & History Center) and I learned why Cary was once famous for gourds.
The Gourd Capital of the World
According to Byrd, this “road to fame” began in 1934 when a group of local ladies bought a packet of mixed ornamental seeds and divided the contents to see what would grow.
The ladies, who had read several magazine articles about gourds, were shocked at the success of their experiment. The contacted the International Gourd Society to obtain more exotic seed and went on to exhibit their gourds at the 1937 NC State Fair.
The exhibit generated so much excitement that they organized a club on December 27, 1937 and called themselves the “Gourd Gardeners.”
The Cary Gourd Festival
Cary’s rise to fame as the Gourd Capital of the World didn’t stop there. By 1938, the Gourd Gardeners had started making all sorts of crafts out of their gourds – lamps, baskets, doorstops, bird houses, rings and even toys. This was what started Cary’s famous, annual Gourd Festival.
The Cary Gourd Festival came to be known as “Cary’s longest running annual celebration.” The following excerpt was found in a 1990 issue of The Gourd:
The 49th annual Cary Gourd Festival theme will be gourds as holiday decorations, from January snowmen through Christmas gourds of all kinds. Making a return appearance from our 1952 festival, whose theme was “The Calendar with Gourds,” will be Mary and her little luffa lamb starting back to school in a gourd schoolhouse…The Cary Festival is a free show of gourds and gourd crafts. Crafters will demonstrate how to prepare gourds to work on, burning and cutting techniques, making and siting birdhouses and much more…
The 1990 festival was held at Cary’s Jordan Hall, which still exists today. The Cary Gourd Festival must have attracted people from far away, because information about nearby hotels was listed in this issue of the The Gourd along with other details.
The Community’s Pride in Gourds
Shortly after hosting their first festival, the Gourd Gardeners shipped a large package of their best work to a festival in California and won a prize. The club was accepted as the Alpha Chapter of the Gourd Society of America, and Cary was proclaimed the “Gourd Capital of the World.”
In 1964, the Cary Chamber of Commerce sponsored a contest to design Cary’s official seal. A resident named Marion Daugherty decorated the border of her entry with drawings of ornamental gourds to reflect the town’s pride in the craft.
Her entry won and became the official Town Seal (left).
Although town leaders later changed the gourd border to curlicues and removed Cary’s proclamation as the “Gourd Capital of the World,” you can still see the resemblance of our gourd history in the border of our current seal (right).
What’s Next for Gourds?
Although Cary is no longer the “Gourd Capital of the World,” gourds are something our town was once famous for – and I’m excited to tell people about this fascinating history. According to Kris, the Gourd Festival was so popular that it outgrew our facilities, but you can still see gourds on exhibition in Raleigh at the NC State Fair each year.
You can also check out the NC Gourd Society online.
Story by Jessica Patrick. Photo by wilthaihui. This story was made possible with the help of Kris Carmichael, Operations & Program Supervisor at the Page-Walker Arts & History Center.
Maryann Rood, longtime resident and daughter of a one time I believe early mayor of Cary chaired the gourd festival for many years.
Every year there is at least one ‘volunteer’ gourd plant that pops up in my garden, providing a dozen or so gourds for crafting. Probably a relative of some of the original plants.