Oct. 14—BLUE MOUNTAIN — For 25 years, visitors have been traveling to rural Tippah County to spend an autumn day on the farm and have the opportunity to pick their own pumpkins.
But when Clay Meeks and his wife, Sharon, opened Pumpkin Patch Farms in Blue Mountain, it wasn't their first try at creating a pumpkin patch. But having the seeds and a dream was one thing; getting the gourds to grow was a different story.
The couple had seen a pumpkin patch in a magazine while living on another farm in the early 1990s. They sewed pumpkin seeds for a couple of years, but their efforts were fruitless.
Deciding it wasn't meant to be, they let the dream fade. For a while, at least.
In 1996, the Meekses were visiting the Smoky Mountains when Clay Meeks' brother-in-law was talking about a pumpkin patch in Birmingham. They visited on the way home and decided to give their own patch another shot.
By then, they had moved to their current farm in Blue Mountain, and conditions were more favorable. That first crop was the best they ever had per-acre, Clay Meeks said.
The crowd of guests who visited the farm that first year was small. The couple mailed out brochures to local schools, advertised in the newspaper and tried driving traffic by word-of-mouth. They had one hay wagon and played yard games like duck, duck, goose with school groups that visited.
A quarter of a century later, there are five wagons to shuttle visitors to and from the farm's 30 acres of fields ripe with pumpkins and plenty of activities to keep guests busy during their visit — from a petting barn and pony rides to a train ride and corn maze.
Homegrown and homemade
Twenty-five years in, operating Pumpkin Patch Farms is a year-round job. For Clay Meeks, it feels like he has "never done anything else."
Pumpkin planting begins in June and continues through July. Between 20 and 25 varieties are planted annually, producing thousands and thousands of pumpkins.
The Meekses also grow sunflowers for photo ops and corn for a twisting corn maze on the 250-acre farm.
"We used to get by with working eight months out of the year on it, but not anymore," Meeks said. "As soon as Oct. 31 gets here, we've got a month of cleanup and we're starting on next year."
After Halloween, the family will clean the grounds, get supplies packed up and take down decorations to prepare for their third "Lights on the Mountain" Christmas celebration in December.
Previous iterations of the Christmas celebration was little more than a wagon ride with colorful holiday lights, but Sharon Meeks said they're in the process of tweaking it and adding "a few surprises" to make it bigger and better than last year, which is their goal every year.
Other than the pumpkins and family fun on the farm, the Meekses say the biggest draw to their farm is the food — particularly their kettle corn, caramel apples and fudge.
"We do not buy anything that comes out of a box," Clay Meeks said. "Everything is homemade."
He spent a week in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, learning to make fudge and got the kettle and other equipment used for making kettle corn in the Smoky Mountains, where he learned the proper technique for cooking it. And his wife learned to make caramel apples in Peoria, Illinois.
Fun on the farm turned family tradition
Year after year, new customers visit the farm for the first time and old customers return.
People who visited the farm as children are now bringing their own kids back, and Clay Meeks considers it a privilege to host entire families for a day of fun.
"When they tell you it's their favorite place, that makes it a whole lot easier as far as the work we have to do," he said.
They continue to add new attractions each year, with three additions this year — a large jumping pillow, grain bin basketball and a 150-foot tube slide known as the Bigfoot mega slide.
A popcorn shop, tentatively called "Johnny Poppers," is also in the works.
"We try to add at least one to two attractions every year," Clay Meeks said. "This being our 25th year, we tried to add a little bit more."
Sharon Meeks said her favorite part of operating the farm is "seeing smiles on kids' faces, seeing people have a good time and enjoy all of the things here."
Meanwhile, Clay Meeks just wants to run a seamless operation. When he sees all five wagons coming and going from the pickup location every 15 minutes, he's at ease.
"When our customers get here, we want them to have a really good time and if everything's working the way it's supposed to, they will have a good time," he said.
"We count every person that comes here as a blessing," he added.