A man remembered as “Mr. Pumpkin” by generations of Oak Harbor families recently passed away.
Michael Case-Smith cherished his role as tour guide of Case Farm for groups of young school children, but he was also a family man, a hard-working farmer, a well-respected grave digger and an important member of the community.
Case-Smith passed away at home Nov. 10 following a brief fight with cancer. He was 71 years old. An open house to celebrate Case-Smith’s life will be held at 1-4 p.m., on Dec. 9 at Wallin-Stucky Funeral Home in Oak Harbor.
His wife, Sheila Case-Smith, explained that Mike Smith grew up on a ranch in Montana that didn’t have indoor plumbing, running water or even electric lights. The family moved to Arizona for his father’s health and he graduated from Camp Verde High School in Arizona in 1970. He move to Anacortes to live with his sister.
Mike and Sheila Case met at one of the Pacific Northwest’s most scenic and iconic sites — next to the Ferry House at Ebey’s Landing.
Sheila explained that she and a friend got a job from Earl Darst, who raised Dutch irises on a field next to the historic building. They followed behind the “crazy big old machine” — a converted potato digger — as it gathered the bulbs from the dirt and picked up the wayward bulbs in five-gallon buckets.
Mike was part of the crew and had a knack for keeping the machine going.
“He was an intelligent guy. He had a quick wit and kind of a wry sense of humor,” Sheila recalled. “He was a jolly fellow.”
Before they were married, Sheila decided that she wanted her and her husband-to-be to change their last names to Case-Smith. She explained that she was proud to be part of a historic farming family on North Whidbey and wanted to keep the name; the farm celebrates its 125th year in 2023.
Sheila said she spent a long time coming up with arguments to convince Mike of the last-name change. When she finally broached the subject, she was surprised by his answer.
“He didn’t think about it for more than 30 seconds and said, ‘That’s a good idea. There are so many Mike Smiths in the world who write bad checks,’” she said.
The couple moved to Arizona and Mike graduated from Grand Canyon College in 1976 with a double major in bible studies and psychology. They moved back to Whidbey and he joined the Case Brothers in raising dressed beef and custom hay work.
Sheila explained that her father had planted two acres of raspberries as a cash crop, which was the start of the U-pick operation. They eventually had 35 acres of berries and vegetables that drew many Whidbey families who yearned for produce fresh from the fields. It was a big deal in the community, Sheila said.
It was also a life that Mike loved.
“He liked the fact that we grew food and when he was out in the fields he could snack,” Sheila said.
The couple were founding members of the Coupeville Farmers Market and have been involved all these years. In recent years they have sold specialty tomato starts in many dozens of types as well as “esoteric” breeds of greens.
Out of the U-pick operation came the Case Farm’s famous pumpkin patch. Sheila explained that a Montessori school teacher was the first to bring local students to the pumpkin patch and eventually the farm became a regular autumn trip for Oak Harbor preschool and kindergarten classes.
Sheila said that “Mr. Pumpkin” started out as a bit of a joke. Mike had long, fuzzy, auburn hair that they would dose with orange hair spray and tease out. When his hairline thinned in later years, he would wear a tall, colorful hat to play the part.
For about 35 years, Mr. Pumpkin gave children joke-filled tours of the farm in his silly get-up. The harvest activities at the farm became a tradition for many families. Many people remember the visits fondly and have introduced a third generation to the farm.
The Case-Smiths raised children as well as crops. Elizabeth was born in 1984, Jasmine in 1993 and Peter in 1995. They all still live in Oak Harbor and help out with the farm. Elizabeth said she cherished the time spent working on the farm with her father. He could always be counted on to show up and help her out.
“What I miss most about him is his constant presence,” she said.
Elizabeth said the farm will continue, but the family isn’t sure exactly the form yet. Peter is determined to continue with the pumpkin patch since it’s such an important part of the community’s traditions.
Sheila explained that her family also helped found Maple Leaf Cemetery, which was near their farm at the north end of Oak Harbor. Her grandfather, father and his brothers were grave diggers and Mike also became known for the hard work of digging graves. He dug his last grave on Sept. 21 of this year.
Their son, Peter, has carried on the tradition.
“He dug four graves by himself and the fifth was for his father,” Sheila said.
Family members and friends gathered at the cemetery before Thanksgiving for the grave digging, which was also a memorial and remembrance of a man who was a vital and beloved part of the community for so many years.
“Those close to him share an adoration for his ability to look on the bright side of things, laugh at good (and bad) jokes, enjoy the simple things in life, be an avid Seattle Sounders fan, and all-around handy guy,” his obituary states. “He shall be greatly missed. Our memories of him are held close, including his love of fireworks, hats, music, crossword puzzles, meeting new people, sharing stories, reading the newspaper, lending a hand and just living life to the fullest while being a bit weird.”