Ghosts of Halloween past

A history of Oak Park's spooky season

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We first ran this story on Oct. 31, 2001. With Halloween upon us again, we thought it would be fun to take another look at how we celebrated Halloween in years past. Some of our sources, like the wonderful Bud Corry, have since passed on. Happily, memories of peopleâ€"and long past eventsâ€"remain.

o you remember your first Halloween? It seemed too good to be trueâ€"you could be anyone or anything you wanted to be (depending on how much shopping or sewing your parents were willing to do), and then you got all that candy, as neighbors (and even strangers) opened their doors and filled your bag. Did you wonder if all the adults had gone mad?

Actually, Halloween's roots go back over 2,000 years, to the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the hard winter. Believing that the dead wandered the earth on the last night of October, Celts wore masks and costumes to ward off evil spirits. Home fires were allowed to go out, and were re-lit from a large bonfire in the center of the village.

After the Romans conquered the Celts, portions of the holiday passed into Christian culture and became All Hallows Eve, celebrated the night before All Saint's Day, a Catholic holiday honoring those who had died in the faith. It came to America with Irish immigrants in the 1840s. Oak Parkers were early and eager participants.

Consider this account from May Estelle Cook in her book, Little Old Oak Park 1837-1902 about the damage done by "all the boys" on a late-19th century Halloween night: "[T]here were an unusual number of torn-up sidewalks, torn-down fence posts and gates, broken-in barn doors and windows, porches stained with rotten eggs and smashed tomatoes, and plenty of other signs of an orgy of the Lord of Misrule."

Are you feeling a little afraid for your kids this Halloween? At the beginning of the 20th century, you were more likely to be afraid of your kids. Maybe that's why Oak Park's adults filled Halloween with parties and big public celebrationsâ€"a busy kid is less likely to wax your windows.

We're taking a look this week at Halloween's history in Oak Park, courtesy of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest's collection of old Oak Leaves newspapers, and the reminiscences of a few longtime villagers. It'll remind you why it's a good idea to hand out all that candy next Monday. The alternative, if we can judge from the past, is downright scary.

The 1910s

W.W. Neice, located at 123 N. Oak Park Ave., was advertising "all kinds of Halloween novelties ranging in price from 5 cents to 50 cents." It was likely buyers would be wearing the "comic faces" they brought to church, since that's where many early Halloween parties were held. At the parties, there were costume prizes, fortunetellers, dancing, doughnuts and apple cider. There was also some moralizing mixed with the fun.

The Oct. 29, 1910 Oak Leaves reports on a morality play, Superstition Flies From Truth, written and performed by the women of First Congregational Church. On a set decorated with jack o'lanterns and autumn leaves for a "Halloween atmosphere," the play "represented the superstitions of all the world finally dispelled by the entrance of truth and light, science and Christianity." The ladies portrayed a variety of symbolic characters, including "the Chinese idea of Halloween," a witch, and "a Mohammedan bride with garments stolen and bloody,
according to custom," all enlightened in the end by "the spirit of truth and light."

Unfortunately, not everyone got the message. The Nov. 5, 1910 paper reported that, although damage was light, "in one or two places boys broke over the bounds and damaged property." They apparently got away, since the boys were warned that "the victims of their unreasonable jokes intend to go to the police should another outbreak occur."

By 1915, there were parties all over town. There were shadow movies at Grace Church parish house, and a hard-times party at the English Lutheran Church, where 150 guests wore mostly "old fashioned or comical" costumes. According to the story, "Rufuses and Belindas from the farm were there in force."

The fad for private parties was to locate them in basements. At 219 S. Cuyler Ave., Mrs. Flora C. Avery converted her basement to a cave, complete with jack o'lanterns, ghosts, black cats, witches and other mysterious things.

The 1920s

Along with the usual assortment of parties, there was a big bash at Oak Park and River Forest High School, courtesy of Atalanta, the girls' athletic club. On Friday afternoon, Oct. 31, 1920, "the hosts, white-draped and black-shrouded, somberly entered the big 'gym' door. None was admitted unless she were clad in ghostly attire. To reach the dimly lighted and picturesque decorated gymnasium, the ghosts had to go down a pair of deceiving stairs and wend their solitary way underneath a balcony. Here a ghost presented to them the various parts of a certain renowned person's anatomy and finally the person himself in the form of a skeleton, glowing with phosphorus in the pitchy blackness."

As if that weren't enough excitement, the young women performed farces, had their fortunes told, ate popcorn and taffy apples, and managed to avoid suffocating while diving into a barrel of flour in search of a 10-cent ring.

Longtime Oak Park resident Paul Soderdahl remembers Halloween here in the 1920s. Born here in 1907, he's lived in the same three-flat on North Humphrey Avenue since he was 6 months old. Although he was too busy working to get into much trouble, he says that in those days Halloween was "a lot of mischief. It was more of a devilish thing."

An example of what passed for fun? "We used to have a grocery store at Chicago and Austin," recalls Soderdahl. "They used a horse and wagon for deliveries. One Halloween, kids took the wheels off and put the wagon on the roof."

The 1930s

By the 1930s, there were a number of organized activities for kids and their families on Halloween. One of the most elaborate was the annual "southern district" Halloween party, organized by south Oak Park merchants. (According to Soderdahl, north and south Oak Park used to be like two different villages. Living in north Oak Park, he never ventured south for the party.) Opinions vary, but the dividing line between north and south Oak Park was probably around Madison Street.

In its heyday, the big southern district celebration attracted over 1,000 costumed kids for a parade through the streets of south Oak Park while several thousand spectators cheered them on.

And those merchants really knew how to throw a party. On Oct. 24, 1935, the Oak Leaves reported that "the committee plans to have Arthur W. Schelter, a member of the Southern District association, and the owner of a plane, to fly over the Southern District at 4 in the afternoon, Thursday, Oct. 31, dropping miniature parachutes advertising the Halloween party and bicycle races." (No report followed on how the residents felt about being buzzed by what must have been a low-flying plane.)

In addition to the parade, prizes for costumes, a beauty contest, and lots of doughnuts and candy bars, the bike races were big in the early years of the Halloween party. A number of Oak Park bikers belonged to the Wheelmen, a group chartered by the Amateur Bicycle League of America. They participated in the race, which was 10 laps around a 13-mile south Oak Park course. In 1935, the winner averaged over 24 miles per hour. Kids also participated in bicycle and tricycle races. There was usually a street dance for the older folks to end the party.

Not to be outdone, the playgrounds also staged large community events. In 1935, Field playground, at Woodbine Avenue and Division Street, and Stevenson playground, at Lake Street and Lombard Avenue, held decorated vehicle parades and costume parades. It's probably not a coincidence that both were located on the north side of town.

Bud Corry, who's spent all his 77 years in Oak Park, recalls the big parties of the era. "The southern party was in the 800 block of South Oak Park Avenue, in front of the old Southern Theater. The merchants got together to hold it; I remember the costume contest and that they gave out candy," he says.

His fondest memory of Halloween is from Field playground. "We'd have a huge bonfire," recalls Corry, who worked for the playground system when it was part of the village, and was later a park district board member. "We'd collect doors, anything that would burn. They dropped it in the 1940s, when it started to seem too dangerous."

Why was so much effort put into these big celebrations? It was probably self-defenseâ€"an attempt to keep kids too busy to cause widespread damage. Judging from police reports, though, it wasn't all that successful. Here's a report from the Nov. 3, 1938 Oak Leaves, on "plenty of mischief throughout the villages:"

"One of the ingenious ideas nipped by the police was a barrier constructed across Madison Street. One end of a long clothesline was attached to a tree and the other to two lawn chairs on the other side of the street. Luckily police stopped the proceedings before any motorist had tried it out.

"Another youngster was relieved of a flit gun full of olive oil that he was spraying on automobiles. Several home owners found their doorbells covered with the 'gooey' substance used in banding trees. In River Forest several lamp posts suffered from a barrage of bricks. Another barrage of tomatoes was thrown by a group of girls in Oak Park at passing autos."

There's also a report of "fence raids." Corry explains: "There was something called gate night, either the night before or after Halloween, when kids would take back gates off of yards and dump them down the alleys."

Corry says most of the major mischief came before trick-or-treating was common. "In the old days, kids would wax windows (wax is much harder to get off than soap), paint garages, ring doorbells and take off (especially popular at apartment buildings, where you could push them all)."

He particularly remembers when a group of unnamed hooligans tied down a crossing gate at the Home Avenue intersection, in the days when the train was at ground level. "The gate guy was kind of nasty, and we decided to get even. We sneaked up and drove a spike in the ground so the gate wouldn't go back up when he tried to release it."

The 1940s

By 1942, the slogan for Halloween was "No Tricks, But Scrap." Kids were organized through the schools to collect scrap metal, instead of candy, to aid the war effort. They were also encouraged to leave windows alone to "save the soap." On Oct. 15, 1942, 11-year-old Gordon Brown wrote to the Oak Leaves, in part:

"Halloween is coming and we boys will be starting to do tricks. Don't you think it would be helping the ... [enemy] if boys this year took ash cans and garbage cans? Don't we need this iron and tin for our soldiers? Even if we just soap windows, we are not being good Americans because fat is used in soap and the radio is asking us not to waste fat."

There were still reports of leaf fires, opened hydrants, broken windows, bent windshield wipers and broken automobile radio antennae, but the emphasis on patriotism seems to have reduced the vandalism.

Through the 1940s, the southern district and playground parties continued. In 1942, a patriotic band called Rudy's Midgets led the southern district parade. In 1949, that honor went to a 25-piece band from Oak Park's Bishop Quarters Military School, and kids who attended the party were asked to bring playing cards for veterans' hospitals.

The 1950s

By the 1950s, trick-or-treating had really caught on, although not everyone agreed that it was such a great idea. In his letter printed in the Oct. 26, 1950 Oak Leaves, Albert J. Hunter wrote that the practice of "young folks knocking on doors or residences at Halloween seeking handouts of something" was "an implied threat" and "imitating gangsters," and suggested that it be discouraged.

The postmaster was quoted in the same paper sternly warning youngsters that "damaging mail boxes is a serious offense," punishable by up to three years in jail and a $1,000 fine.

There was some good news reported on Nov. 3, 1955. The James S. Haboushes, who lived at 900 Columbian Ave., tested the honesty of local kids by putting out a large box filled with candy in front of their home. They believed trick-or-treaters would take only what they felt was a fair share. "[T]he somewhere around 100 youngsters visiting the home that night proved them right as they limited themselves to just a few pieces each of the tempting array of sweets," said the account of the experiment.

By 1956, the southern district party was apparently no more, or at least not important enough to merit a mention in the local paper.

In 1959, local kids collected $1,500 for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

The 1960s

UNICEF collections were an important part of Halloween in Oak Park through the 1960s. Kids carried cartons shaped like houses, decorated with orange and black UNICEF symbols. In 1965, the village president proclaimed Oct. 31 UNICEF day; in 1967 trick-or-treaters raised $3,298.

It was a coordinated effort, involving schools, churches and the Oak Park Recreation Department. Mrs. William Toppin, president of the local UNICEF committee, said in 1968, "Instead of asking for candy, [children] hope to obtain pennies for their UNICEF cartons."

But there was also an undercurrent of concern about crime that year. On Nov. 6, 1968, village trustee George Vician noted a "shocking outbreak" of vandalism at Oak Park recreation centers and parks. "It's a sad commentary on what is taking place in the village," he said. Village Manager Harris Stevens thought vandalism had been held down at recreation centers because they'd used security guards, but added that "damage was extensive around schools, which didn't have guards."

The 1970s to today

By 1970 there was a revolution in how we viewed Halloween. Kids were no longer the enemy; they were potential victims. Halloween stories were full of warnings for kids and their parents.

In 1975, police had these Halloween tips: Young children should be accompanied by adults; "Meet 'n Treat" (as they called it) should be confined to the neighborhood during afternoon and evening hours only; kids should only accept wrapped or sealed candy; and only houses with lit porch lights should be visited. An editorial added that parents should take precautions and beware of pins and needles that might be inserted into candy.

In the fall of 1982, six people in the Chicago area died after taking Tylenol capsules tainted with potassium cyanide. Like today, everything suddenly seemed suspect and dangerous. On Oct. 27, 1982, Wednesday Journal reported that a woman burned her mouth on mouthwash contaminated with sulfuric acid that she'd purchased in Oak Park the week before.

How did this change Halloween? Although trick-or-treating wasn't banned (that was considered) it certainly was affected. One Oak Park resident said that only five kids came to her door, down from 100 the year before. River Forest limited trick-or-treating to 3 to 7 p.m., and Oak Park police suggested stopping after dark. Police also advised people to label treats with their names and addresses. The president of the Irving School PTO thought giving kids money instead of candy was a great idea.

Lots of alternatives were offeredâ€"Parks and Recreation of Oak Park, the River Forest Community Center, and the Oak Park Mall hosted parties. The Community Center drew over 1,000 people. Andersen Center hosted 600 kids for face painting and mask making, but no candy was distributed.

By 1987, things had settled down. That year the village allowed kids two days of trick-or-treating, since Halloween fell on a Saturday and the schools celebrated the holiday on Friday. Parents of sugar-shocked kids, and residents who had to endure two days of constantly ringing doorbells, were not amused.

Halloween is now a mainstream holiday, second only to Christmas in spending and home decorating. We've got a Halloween parade again in Oak Park, and even at a time when real life is scarier than we could have imagined, we're still expecting the trick-or-treaters (light on the tricks, and heavy on the treats) to be out in force.

Happy Halloween!

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