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When Cary was the Gourd Capital of the World

20 Oct 2022 8:37 AM | Barbara Wetmore (Administrator)

“What were those funny shapes around the seal of the Town of Cary?” I wondered as I sat in my car at a traffic light, studying the decal in the corner of my windshield (required for car owners in Cary at the time). It was 1981 and I had just moved to Cary.

Cary Town Seal adopted in 1964

They're . . . gourds! And the words printed around the circular seal read, “Gourd Capital of the World.”

“I have moved to the gourd capital of the world!” I remember exclaiming out loud. I couldn't wait to tell my family and friends. Wouldn't they be jealous? :-)

By the end of that year, I had attended my first Gourd Festival at Jordan Hall and purchased my first of many gourds. Here it is (I still have it):

I love gourds. And I love that Cary has a history tied to gourds. That history goes all the way back to 1937 and it's still going today. Public Historian and Page-Walker Arts & History Center Program Assistant Matthew Champagne has written a great summary of this history:

85 years ago, in 1937, a group of Cary women formed a club called the “Gourd Gardeners.” The following year, in the Home Economics Department of the brand-new Cary High School (now the Cary Arts Center) these women exhibited a dazzling array of lamps, baskets, doorstops, charm rings, birdhouses, toys, and other crafts all made from – you guessed it – the gourds they grew.

Hosted in Cary from that day in 1938 until 1999, the Cary Gourd Festival still holds the title of Cary's longest-run annual celebration. In fact, gourds were Cary's first claim to fame. Emboldened by the overwhelmingly positive response to the first Cary Gourd Festival, the Gourd Gardeners shipped a large package of their best grows to a festival in California and Cary took the gold! “That convinced us that we could grow gourds as well as anyone,” said founding member Rachel Dunham. Soon afterward, the club adopted the name the Gourd Village Garden Club, which has blossomed today into the North Carolina Gourd Society, which since 2000 exhibited their gourds at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. Be sure to check out this year's 80th Annual Gourd Festival on November 5th and 6th.

Early 1950s Gourd Festival in a pool hall that once occupied the former site of Crosstown Pub

If we have any math wizards among us, you may have noticed something doesn't quite add up there. An annual festival started in 1938 should be celebrating its 85th anniversary in 2022, not its 80th. Well, in addition to the years of severe droughts, no Gourd Festivals were held between 1943 and 1945 because of our country's involvement in World War II. Like thousands of other women across the United States, Gourd Village Garden Club members aided the war effort by substituting ornamental grows, like gourds, for fruits and vegetables that could help supplement the country's limited food supply. These became known as Victory Gardens and proved significant in winning the war.

Fortunately, gourd gardening in Cary resumed after World War II and Cary became known as the Gourd Capital of the World. In fact, in 1964, when the Chamber of Commerce sponsored a contest to design an official town seal, the winner, Marion Daugherty, decorated the border of her entry with drawings of gourds and at the bottom of the seal she placed the words, “Gourd Capital of the World.” Although the basic design has remained intact, subsequent town leaders have altered the seal slightly. The biggest change occurred during the administration of Mayor Fred G. Bond when the seal was “degourded.” The words “gourd capital” were removed and the gourd drawings were turned into decorative curlicues.

Perfectly combining Cary's long agricultural history with our craft traditions, it should come as no surprise that the Gourd Festival now organized by the North Carolina Gourd Society stems from a Cary homegrown tradition.

In the book Images of America: Cary by Sherry Monahan, the photo on page 45 shows the former Crosstown Pub building as the Gourd Village Garden Club. The door is set on an angle, just as the current building has retained.

Former site of Crosstown Pub circa 1950s; it was the meeting place of the Gourd Village Garden Club

Recent former site of Crosstown Pub in 2022

The Gourd Village Garden Club became the North Carolina Gourd Society and moved its annual festival to the State Fairgrounds in 2000. It's still “growing” strong! This year you can take in gourds to your heart's delight at the Fairgrounds on November 5 and 6 at the 80th Annual NC Gourd Arts and Crafts Festival.

Though no longer the home of the society or the festival, for me, Cary will always be the Gourd Capital of the World!

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