Inflatables can be impressive. Animatronics, pretty awesome. But when it comes to Halloween displays, the jack-o’-lantern still slays.
And in these parts, we’ve heard of no one doing old-school cool like friends Gina Bruederle and Tami Munns of Oakdale. For about 15 years, the women have led their husbands, children and friends in a pumpkin-carving tradition that’s grown and grown.
They started with perhaps 100 pumpkins and are up to nearly 300 this year. “We had 286 last year,” Munns said Sunday morning at the Bruederle home, where the carving is done. “Every year, we’re like, ‘OK, we’ve gotta beat last year.’ Not having all the kids home makes it difficult, though.”
The Bruederle and Munns children — five between the two families — grew up together, going through schools and 4-H and FFA programs. During their high school and Modesto Junior College years, they’d typically have friends join in the seasonal fun. Pumpkins have been carved for favorite sports teams, the universities they attended. Every year, even now, the Oakdale High Mustangs are represented.
Traditionally, Bruederle has done most of the drawing. The 49-year-old has been a nail artist since age 18, so is accustomed to creating “all kinds of cool designs” on smaller canvases than a pumpkin. This year, though, Munns has helped more with the patterns so they can a lot of pumpkins prepped for carving by friends. “And then we hope that our friends are still our friends and help us,” she joked.
Outside the Bruederle home, all the orange gourds are in various stages of readiness. Sunday morning, one sat with a relief carving of the Scooby gang’s Mystery Machine, while others drawn with Shaggy and Scooby-Doo were nearby. All around were Disney/Pixar and other popular characters: Cinderella, her castle, Lightning McQueen and Mater, Paw Patrol pups, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, Speedy Gonzales. “Star Wars” jack-o’-lanterns include Yoda, a stormtrooper, R2-D2 and C-3PO. There’s Batman’s cowl and, just a few pumpkins away, his chest insignia.
Many of the pumpkins are original designs, including favorites that return year after year. Among them is a string of pumpkins carved to look like a snake. Gourds turned on their sides become witches, with the long stems as their noses. The skeletal Bone Boy and Bone Girl are like snowmen, except with pumpkins. A dragon is another multi-pumpkin creation, as is a “fire pit” — a stack of pumpkins carved with flame designs and lighted in red.
Carved flames are the closest the jack-o’-lantern display gets to fire, because all the illumination is done with strings of patio lights. All the gourds are gutted from beneath by Bruederle’s and Munns’ husbands — Cavan and Terry, respectively — and then arranged atop the bulbs at the Munn home, where the lighted display will be up from Halloween night through the following Sunday.
This year’s effort began Saturday, Oct. 19, when a few vehicles and a livestock trailer were used to pick up the pumpkins from Fonseca Farms in Manteca, which regularly donates them.
She and Munns began drawing the designs Thursday, Bruederle said, and now it’s go, go, go to get the job done by Halloween. “We usually start our day at 8 and we will carve till about 9 at night, with a few breaks in between, till it’s all done,” she said. Friends will pitch in to carve the 50 to 75 jack-o’-lanterns that need to get done each day before Thursday, Bruederle said.
And carving is just part of the process. Keeping the cut jack-o’-lanterns from quickly deteriorating is the rest. That means regular bleach baths.
“As soon as they’re gutted, they sit in bleach for about 20 minutes,” Munns said, standing near several large plastic storage tubs filled with water and a few cups of bleach. “Then after we carve them, they go back in the bleach and water for another 15 to 20 minutes.”
The jack-o’-lanterns continue to get bleach baths daily until they go on display, because the longer mold and bugs are fended off, the longer the gourds will last.
“My hands are torn up for about a month afterward because I do a lot of the dunking in bleach and water,” Munns said. And all the carving takes a toll and hands, wrists and forearms. “One year I could not feel my thumb for about a month,” she added. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope the feeling comes back.’”
But Munns, who’s a nurse, and Bruederle love the tradition. For all the work it takes, it’s still relaxing, Bruederle said, adding that she’s usually “not the relaxing type.” Gesturing to her and her husband’s property, she said, “We have like 200 sheep here, and do 4-H and FFA stuff, so we’re busy. It’s not a break at all, but it’s a social time. Tami and I spend about 10 days together and really enjoy it.”
The friends have learned a lot over their years of carving. They’ve found that the thicker the stem, the longer a carved pumpkin will last. They’ve figured out which varieties are best for carving, and which have flesh so hard it’s best just to use drills to create patterns. They’ve assembled an impressive variety of woodcarving and clay-sculpting tools and knives.
They’ve learned to set aside some designs to carve nearest Halloween. Those are ones that have narrow cuts, which can close up if the pumpkin starts to soften, shrink and settle.
This week, they’ll start moving the carved lanterns to the Munns home, 7667 Rodden Road. The lighted display will get a trial run Wednesday night, but won’t be finished until Thursday, which is Halloween.
In recent years, word of mouth and a couple of signs they put up on Rodden have drawn a few hundred people to the walk-through display, which the families offer free of charge. A lot of people like to visit the display during daylight, then return to see how the lighted lanterns look.
For all the work they put into it, it wouldn’t be fun if they couldn’t share it, Bruederle said. And even with their kids grown, she and Munns have no plans to stop. “Tina and I are always like, ‘Are we gonna do it again?’” she said. They’ve decided that as long as the Fonsecas want to keep donating the pumpkins, “we’ll keep carving.”