Published Oct. 31, 2002

Copyright by The Colorado Springs Gazette

SIDE STREETS: Venetucci Farm feels empty without schoolchildren’s joy

By Bill Vogrin

SECURITY – On a cold, gray day in late October, Nick and Bambi Venetucci sit at the kitchen table in their century-old farmhouse. Outside, light snow swirls across empty fields.venetucci-sign

It’s two days before Halloween, and the Venetucci Ranch is strangely quiet.

A vintage ’48 John Deere tractor stands sentry outside the kitchen window. Nearby, amid a collection of antique farm equipment, sit a lonely plow, an empty wagon and small, wooden wheelbarrow emblazoned: “Venetucci Ranch 1936.”

There are no school buses lined up behind the barns.

No traffic jams on Old Highway 85/87. No smiling faces of happy children.

For the first time in 66 years, there are no pumpkins on the Venetucci ranch.

There may never be again.

And that’s a difficult thing for Venetucci, 91, and his 73-year-old wife to face.

“It’s a very emotional thing,” Bambi Venetucci said. “It’s the end of an era. You never know what next year will bring, but …”

Her voice trails off.

No pumpkins anymore? What if the drought breaks and rains return? Surely there will be pumpkins next year.

“I’m not looking that far ahead anymore,” Nick Venetucci said. “I’m kind of living day-to-day.”

The great drought of 2002 did something the heat wave of ’95, the hail storm of August 1989 and early blizzards were never able to do: wipe out Venetucci’s pumpkin crop. And it seems, his spirit.

Despite every previous calamity and personal tragedy – the deaths of his beloved parents, even his own broken pelvis – Venetucci always managed a few pumpkins.

Not in 2002.

“I can’t control the weather,” Venetucci said, as if he needs to apologize for the driest year in a century.

nick-venetucci-wistful
Nick Venetucci ponders the drought that ruined his pumpkin crop. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

“With the drought, there was no way I could grow pumpkins. The ground was so hard I couldn’t get a plow in it. It was so hot, even if I had planted, the pumpkins would have burned up.”

He pauses at the thought and the smile disappears from his etched face.

Pumpkins are important because of what they represent to the Venetuccis and the people of Colorado Springs: decade after decade of random kindness from a farmer to thousands of school children.

For the past 50 years or so – Venetucci can’t remember exactly – he’s been giving away pumpkins.

The tradition started in the 1950s when he drove a delivery truck down Tejon Street.

“The truck was piled clean to the top with orange pumpkins,” Venetucci said, flashing his broad smile. “The kids on the street watched and their eyes got so big.”

He stopped his truck and gave a pumpkin to every child he saw.

“I gave a whole truckload of pumpkins away,” he said.

He found he enjoyed handing out pumpkins and seeing children smile.

Then a school teacher asked if she could bring her class to his pumpkin patch. While she was there, Venetucci told each child to cut a pumpkin – for free.

“She spread the word,” he said.

Soon, schoolchildren from across the Pikes Peak region were tramping across Venetucci’s 60-acre pumpkin patch in the weeks before Halloween, hauling away free pumpkins.

As his legend grew, so did the crowds – anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 children a year. Easily 1 million over 50 years.

“I love the little kiddies,” he said. “I love to go out and spend time with them in the fields.”

He misses them.

Desperately.

As he talks, a stranger rings the doorbell.

It’s Mary Dingley of Colorado Springs. She hands a small, orange pumpkin to Bambi Venetucci, with a card.

“This is from our family to yours,” Dingley said. “You’ve given so much to so many people. So many pumpkins. And now, you don’t have any. We just wanted to do something.”

Another random act of kindness. One of many that have come the Venetuccis’ way in recent days as word spreads of his barren fields.

But instead of smiles, this pumpkin evokes bittersweet emotions. Venetucci is uncomfortable being on the receiving end. Each expression of gratitude reminds him of all he’s missing this year. Of what he may never again enjoy.

“I’ve ridden those tractors to the moon and back,” he said, recalling the ups and downs of farming the dirt along Fountain Creek.

Memories come flooding out:

His budding career in minor league baseball that was cut short by the Great Depression and the family’s need of his help on the ranch.

Selling 800-some acres of the family farm – leaving him just 210 acres – to the U.S. Army for $10 an acre to establish Camp Carson.

German and Italian prisoners of war helping clear his fields for planting during World War II.

Discovering an aquifer that allowed him to irrigate and grow vegetables and save The Broadmoor resort during a 1950s drought.

Selling tons of sweet corn, cabbage, beans, rhubarb, peas and, of course, pumpkins, over the years.

He pauses at pictures of his parents – coal miner Nicholas Venetucci and his wife, Marguerita, Italian immigrants who came to Colorado in the late 1800s, eventually settling a farm in Papeton, near what is now Fillmore and Nevada avenues.

“I’m the last one left,” he said wistfully, ticking off the deaths of his parents, his four brothers and two sisters.

His smile returns as he enters a small room filled with mementos: honors and awards from governors, mayors, community groups and, most importantly, his beloved schoolchildren.

Perhaps they mean so much because he has no children of his own, a visitor suggests.

“I’ve got more children than anybody in this town,” Venetucci shoots back, again smiling broadly.

Asked what he remembers most from half a century of giving away pumpkins, Venetucci  answers quickly.

“My favorite memory,” he said, “is the smiling faces of children as they walk up and down the fields looking for their special pumpkins.”

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