Boo! Halloween through the years in Villisca

Halloween card

In the early days of Villisca, and of this corner of southwest Iowa, Halloween was an excuse to throw a party, or two, dress up in homemade costumes, and take part inactivitiesspecific only to that time of year. (Think bobbing for apples!) In the early days, there wasn’t much trick or treating, as we understand it now. Well, there were tricks aplenty, but the treats were mostly found in homes where parties were being held.

The celebration was also an excuse for young men, and not so young men, to raise Cainthroughout the community. Usually, the mischief was just annoying but sometimes it was amusing, although havingthe outhouse moved mysteriously in the night probably got old pretty quickly. And sometimes, the boys really got carried away.

Mayor P. P. Greenlee put the ornery ones on notice in the Halloween 1895 issue of the Review:“I call the attention of the boys of the City to the fact there were some things indulged in on “Halloween” of last year that were not becoming to those who were thus engaged, and I now ask you to forgo any and all things on that evening this year… I have instructed the Marshals to be more vigilant than usual…but hope there may be no cause for arrests.”

Unfortunately, there were no reports in the previous year’s papers about what those little devils had gotten up to that so upset the mayor. But it’s likely that objects, implements and small buildings that weren’t tied down were found far from their normal location on the morning of November 1, 1894. Never underestimate the power of the press, or maybe the vigilance of the town marshals, because Halloween was a lot calmer in 1895 than it had been the previous year. Even so, the mayor put the boys on notice the next year, that although the previous Halloween had been more orderly, he was still having the town Marshals keep a sharp watch on after dark activities.

At several times over the next 100 years, other mayors also made similar announcements in response to pranks gone bad, and just bad pranks. One was so ticked off at whatever had happened the previous Halloween, he hired four extra deputies to patrol the town the following year. And they were ordered to “throw the book” at anyone acting out of line. Property was occasionally destroyed, the tunnel blocked with machinery and trash, graffiti splashed on buildings, fire crackers disturbed quiet neighborhoods, fires started for fun got out of control but never too bad, trees got tp-ed, a manure spreader blocked the entrance to city hall, park benches ended far from the park, windows got soaped, and on and on. But generally, Halloween in Villisca has been more fun than destructive.

Alta Sogren wrote in a 1977 column about Halloweens of 50 years earlier. “When I was a child, we dressed up in old clothes, donned a homemade mask and set out for an evening of fun, not to go “Trick or Treating,” as we had not heard of this custom then. Instead we attended a party in some girl’s home. . . The evening was spent listening to scary stories, with sound effects and playing games. …What were the boys doing that evening? They were hard at work in the back yards, trying to dislodge the small out buildings, which were in evidence in the pre-waterworks days Also, anything found lying around loose was carried to some other place. I remember coming to school one morning and seeing a buggy perched on the roof of the school building.”

It wasn’t just in town that ornery boys got up to no good on Halloween. Quincy Dunn recalled a story his father, George, told of a Halloween out in the country, probably about 100 years ago. George was returning home when he saw a group of boys dive into a ditch. Assuming they planned to pay him a Halloween visit, Georgehurried home and made a few preparations. He tied a rope to a stake and then laid it out under the big window of his house and then across the drive into some bushes. Taking his shotgun along, George hid behind the bushes and waited.  Sure enough, the boys came, and reach up to the window with their tic-tacs. (A tic-tac is a little gadget made of a notched spool and a rubber band. It looks innocent, but when it is run up a windowpane, it makes a horrible racket.) Just as the boys reached toward his window, George fired the shotgun in the air. He then dropped the gun and jerked on the rope. As the boys turned to run, they tripped over the rope and fell, with one yelling, “I’ve been shot!” George felt he’d had a fine Halloween!

Boys don’t change much. About 50 years after the Dunn prank, a group of young men decided to pull off a sensational Halloween prank in town, according to a story told by A. Nonymous to the author of “Good Times in Montgomery County.” (Mr. A. Nonymous was well known in his later years for his resounding singing voice; so much so that there is a harmonious trail in memory of him and his equally vocally-talented wife.)

The boys were determined their prank had to be something never done before as well as something that wasn’t destructive. After several discussions they finally agreed upon what would be their last prank because they would be in military service within a few months.Their plan: put an outhouse on top of the high school building.

They needed an outhouse, a pickup, equipment to hoist the outhouse to the roof, and ladders. (It was fortunate that a roofer had been tarring the roof and had not removed his ladders or pulleys.) They got the outhouse from a closed country school, four people went up on the roof, others went by City Hall to lure the night constable away from his usual place, and yet another backed the pickup up to where a sling was waiting. And the outhouse was on its way to the top. Mission accomplished, the boys and the pickup disappeared into the night.

Some of the “perps” were called in to see the principal the next day and he suggested, without actually accusing them of the prank, they might remove the “object” before the roofer was finished with his work on the weekend. That night, the supremely satisfied boys removed the outhouse and returned it to its original location. The believed they had proved that with a little bit of innovation, engineering and initiative, a Halloween prank could be played without destroying any property or endangering anyone’s life. (Today, of course, the whole episode would have been on You Tube before the boys left the school building on Halloween night.)

A couple of years after this event, a headline in the Nov. 4, 1948 Review announced “Halloween Mischief of Former Years No Longer Popular Here.” Well, it never does to speak too soon because in the early ‘50s, mischief abounded. But then that era was over and more orderly Halloweens followed. Former Review publisher Lynn Hall wrote in his column in 1974 that he was “glad we didn’t have any of the problems around here that some places had on Halloween…It was a pretty sane Halloween…with a minimum of activity down town.”

New traditions have developed, perhaps not replacing the old ones, but have become part of the local Halloween. The Chamber of Commerce’sHalloweenparties for the town’s under 12 childrencontinued for decades. Games and contests, costumes, candy, and noise entertained the kids until it was time to trick or treat or perhaps for some, replaced trick or treating. In the ‘50s, the Y-Teens began a tradition of “Trick or Treating for UNICEF” that lasted through 2012. Elementary students dress up and visit the residents of the Good Samaritan Center. More recently, the Armory has been turned into a haunted house and regional corn mazes, hayrides, haunted houses and Halloween parades have entertained older kids as well as some adults.

But because kids really don’t change that much—no matter the era, It’s also a pretty sure bet that boys will still be pulling Halloween pranks, girls will be giving parties, and Villisca’s kids will be out and about tonight. Here’s hoping for a Happy (and Safe) Halloween for all!


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