Like a sculptor analyzing a block of marble, Ethel Michek saw the artistic possibilities in a sun-ripened gourd.
She studied the bumps, the lines, the contours. Gradually, a face began to take shape.
Maybe it was a cat. Or an astronaut. Or a fairy-tale princess.
With a little paint and a few props, Michek transformed the gourd into an entertaining character with folksy charm.
They didn’t call her “The Pumpkin Lady” for nothing.
For more than 30 years, Michek entertained the masses each October with sprawling Halloween displays on her Boston Heights farm. The annual decorations became so popular that area schools began to take pupils on field trips to see them.
Literally, field trips.
Michek and her husband, Charles, grew more than 5,000 pumpkins every summer on their farm at 7254 Olde Eight Road (then known as Akron-Cleveland Road). In 1963, Ethel Michek began creating “pumpkin people” to dress up the couple’s produce stand near Hines Hill Road.
One of her early works was a little old lady. Michek painted a face on a happy-looking pumpkin, stuffed a country dress full of straw, placed a hat on its head and positioned the figure in a rocking chair.
Voila! An instant grandmother.
Customers clamored for more characters, and Michek was happy to oblige. She had a certain affinity for Halloween — perhaps because she was born on Oct. 29. Her annual displays were whimsical and joyful, never scary or gruesome.
Michek turned to fairy tales and literature for much of her inspiration. Mother Goose, the Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, Three Men in a Tub, Little Miss Muffet, Jack and Jill, Little Bo Peep, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were among the 50 or so characters who populated the yard.
Sightseers began to flood the neighborhood. Vehicles slowed so passengers could enjoy the view. Many people got out of cars to take a closer look.
It was similar to Christmas in downtown Akron when people gawked at decorations in windows at O’Neil’s and Polsky’s. Instead of going into town, though, people drove out to the country in October to see pumpkin people in the fall foliage.
Customers used the honor system while shopping at the roadside stand. They picked out what they wanted — maybe a pumpkin for 35 cents — and paid for it by leaving their money. Generally, there was no attendant.
“I just put a big bowl outside with $3 in change and let people put their money in and take their change,” Michek once explained. “I’ve always found people to be very honest.”
When Charles Michek, a maintenance man for 40 years at Daugherty Lumber Co. in Cleveland, passed away at age 61 in 1969, his widow continued the Halloween tradition at the farm.
“I love doing this,” Ethel Michek once told a Beacon Journal reporter. “On the weekends, the whole yard is full of people. School busloads of children visit during the week.”
She created a pumpkin version of Snoopy and built an airplane for him to battle the Red Baron. Inspired by the Beatles and other British Invasion groups, she designed a mop-topped quartet that she dubbed the “Boston Heights Punkin Heads.” She also built a display with cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy riding his pumpkin steed, Topper.
Michek felt that one of her only missteps was Rip Van Winkle. Children didn’t recognize the slumbering, long-bearded character.
“They must not be telling his story anymore,” she said.
Peter Pumpkin Eater probably was a mistake, too. It was a pumpkin dining on a pumpkin. Ewwwwwww.
Although she was getting older, Michek continued to fill wheelbarrows with pumpkins and lug them to her roadside stand. It was hard work, but she was made of sturdy stock.
“Her face, lined and tanned from hours toiling in the sun, lights up with a wide grin when she talks about her favorite project — making others smile when they see her pumpkin pageant,” the Beacon Journal explained in a 1980 profile.
“Her strong hands are rough and stiff from work, but not so stiff that she can’t create characters out of pumpkins, with pants, shirts and dresses stuffed with straw or other items.”
At the time, Michek was quite proud of her Yoda pumpkin character from The Empire Strikes Back.
“I had to spend 50 cents for a comic book so I would know what he looked like,” she admitted.
She continued the displays into the 1980s because she didn’t want to disappoint anyone at Halloween.
“Lots of people look for them,” she said.
One sad autumn, however, motorists drove into Boston Heights and saw an empty lawn on Olde Eight Road.
Ethel Michek was 80 years old when she passed away in June 1990. She was buried next to her husband at Northfield-Macedonia Cemetery in Northfield Center. Their graves are located in Section 2, Lot 32.
Visitors might notice a little pumpkin decorating the headstone.
Happy Halloween, “Pumpkin Lady.”
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.