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Papa's Pumpkin Patch back on track

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"Choo choo!" shout the young riders boarding the Papa's Pumpkin Patch train.They give gleeful fist pumps as conductor Marv Erhardt welcomes them with a warm smile. Monday was opening day for its 29th season.The fall business, known for giving to multiple charities and non-profits, was moved from northwest Bismarck to Mandan's Dacotah Centennial Park due to Missouri River flood damage this fall.

The temporary site, used for speed car races and Mandan's Independence Day Rodeo, is now brightened with warm colors of orange pumpkins, gourds and squash. Hay rides and obstacles are waiting for children to climb on.

Erhardt's enthusiasm for Papa's Pumpkin Patch matches his riders as they circle the grounds. "Every day, your job is to make people's day," he said.

It is Erhardt's fifth year as conductor. One wouldn't know from his denim bibs and conductor hat he is really an educational consultant off-season. He retired after 40 years as an educator, school administrator and trainer of school leaders through the North Dakota Leadership Educational Administration Development program. He holds a Ph.D. in education leadership from the University of Wyoming in Laramie, a master's degree from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks in education leadership and his bachelor's in teaching from Valley City State University.

He also draws on training he received at Disney University in Orlando, Fla ."This is like a great big farm. Much of what has been created here are experiences farm kids take for granted - playing in the hay, playing in the bales. Kids in the cities who don't experience that get to do that out here."

Erhardt delights in the children's squeals going down the slides and their parents' reactions. "It's interesting and it's mostly just fun," he said. "It's the people and the cause. ... Every year, we try to create some new, fun place for them to play."

He tailors stories to the riders based upon their ages. Preschoolers will learn of the playground area and adults, the play area's history.

Opening day was a windy one for the patch's founder Dave Pearce.He intends on using the Mandan site again in 2012, as his farm recovers. "We'll reseed all of the grass and the fields next year. By the fall it will just be beginning to grow," he said. It also will allow time to clear tree debris.

Pearce said the 67 acres available is the same amount as Bismarck, but the layout is a little different. "I'm expecting the turnout will be larger if the weather holds," he said of the up to 50,000 that normally visit.

Hours for the public will be noon to 7 p.m. through Oct. 22. Classes are allowed to come in the morning. Visit www.papaspumpkinpatch.com for more information.

(Reach reporter LeAnn Eckroth at 250-8264 or leann.eckroth@bismarcktribune.com)

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