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Uncle Ray's 9th Annual Pumpkin Day brings festivities to hundreds

Shana and Travis Hensch enjoy a day out at Uncle Ray's 9th Annual Pumpkin Festival in New York Mills. "This is a great community activity. Lots of children, lots of fun," they said. From left: Anna Carlson, Alex Kotaska, Brandy Hensch, Shana Hensch, and Travis Hensch. Their son Breck sits on a pumpkin he picked at the festival.1 / 2
Over 400 people attended the 9th Annual Uncle Ray's Pumpkin Day and the 3rd Annual Pumpkin Day Jam Session on Saturday, Sept 25. People were invited to S&S Vineyards to pick a pumpkin from the field and to enjoy each other's company. "As long as one kid comes out and is happy every year, that's all that matters. Brian does this for the kids and the local community," said resident Scott Hagen.2 / 2

Despite overnight rain and a gloomy forecast, Uncle Ray's 9th Annual Pumpkin Day picked up speed within a half hour of its opening. The clouds parted and the sun's rays spread brilliantly across the fields of S&S Vineyards and Winery in New York Mills.

Both sides of the road were lined with cars by 11:00 a.m. Roughly 400 people attended the event, according to Brian Sillanpaa, nephew of the late Ray Sonnenberg, who started the community event in 2001.

Tara and Charly Baune cancelled their weekend plans to attend Uncle Ray's Pumpkin Day. They brought along their son Jonas and two daughters Aidyn and Alayna at 10 a.m. sharp.

"We've come here years before and the pumpkins were already gone," said Charly.

Aidyn, who just started kindergarten, heard of the festival from her new teacher Barbara Tumberg. She brought along a pair of binoculars to find the best pumpkins in the patch.

Tara, born and raised in New York Mills, said, "This is wonderful. It's such a good-hearted thing they do here."

The family picked a pumpkin that took two grown men to load into their vehicle.

Hot dogs, chips, pastries, coffee, lemonade and other refreshments were served. Jason and Tracy Borchert have been volunteering their time the past three years.

"This is a wonderful deal for kids," said Jason. "People enjoy having this event put on for them. There are a lot of donations and a lot of people putting in time."

Over twenty volunteers put forth their efforts to make the day enjoyable for children, parents, and the community.

"A lot of people come here to help," Sillanpaa's fiancée Carla Snyder said.

Darlene and Jim Steinbach, neighbors of Sillinpaa's for the last 35 years, put in time to help make the festival possible.

"I wouldn't have time to take care of everything on my own," Sillanpaa said. "I'm thankful to Jim and Darlene for all they do to keep the yards looking nice."

He noted that his cousins Jon and Sandy Frost are big contributors for the event. "Between the Frosts and Steinbachs, this wouldn't be possible. No if's, and's, or but's. Jon's got a hand in everything."

"The kids wouldn't have a pumpkin if it wasn't for Jon, Jim, Sandy and Darlene," he said.

Scott Hagen lauded Brian's work in making the event possible. "As long as one kid comes out and is happy every year, that's all that matters. Brian does this for the kids and the local community," he said.

Tender Hearts Home Care helped supply food, beverages, and cookies. New York Mills Lanes donated coolers and ice for the lemonade.

"The New York Mills C&C helped a great deal," Sillanpaa said. "We're getting more and more community support every year."

Jam Festival

The event was also the 3rd Annual Jam Session, held in a hayloft that was converted into a dance hall.

"One thing you see when you get out here is a bunch of great people having fun," Sillanpaa said.

The "Hillside Creeps", a band from Minneapolis, came out to play live music throughout the festival. One of the members, Jeff Walden, has played with musicians Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

"The Hillside Creeps are willing to come out and play a free concert for the community. They've come all the way from the cities to play live music for us all," said Sillanpaa.

"Lots of people have come with their own instruments to join us and it's a blast. We always welcome any local talent to join in," he furthered.

Jerry Beach and Dave Meyer of the "Vagabonds", a local band in NY Mills, have often joined in the Jam Session.

Uncle Ray

Ray Sonnenberg began the Pumpkin Day in 2001 as a community event. Sillanpaa and his fiancée have been carrying on the tradition in his memory. Uncle Ray passed away in 2005.

"The main thing of this event is my Uncle Ray. He's still talked about and you never hear a bad word about him," Brian said.

"One thing I can't stress enough is that he was a father, a mentor, and a best friend all in one."

Carla knew Brian's uncle Ray very well. She noted that they had spent time together nearly every weekend for 13 years. "I always looked forward to seeing him," she said. "He was also so kind to everybody no matter who you were. He always made me laugh."

S&S Vineyards and


Sillanpaa grew up around the Napa Valley region. Wine making began with his grandfather, Ed Sonnenberg, and his father, Duane Sillanpaa.

Brian and Ray began making wine together and were awarded two blue ribbons at state fairs. Sillanpaa noted he and Uncle Ray planted the grapes, rhubarb, aronia berries, and juneberries together.

Sillanpaa is fully licensed and is preparing to market his wine at the end of this year.

St. Croix, Frontenac, and Foch grapes are grown on the vineyard. The winery is currently making a chokecherry wine with aronia berries, thereby creating a dry social red wine. Also in the works are rhubarb-strawberry and honeydew melon chardonnays.

Sillanpaa also grows sweet corn adjacent to the pumpkin patch. This year, he filled a truck and trailer. He had them brought down to the cities and proceeds were donated to Habitat for Humanity.

Between making wine, working in Edina as Vice President of Barr Engineering, and donating to Habitat for Humanity, Sillanpaa still finds the time to honor Uncle Ray by hosting such a wonderful community event for all to enjoy.