Superior Halloweens past and present

October 21, 2014


Kathy Laakso
Zenith City Weekly

All Hallows Eve is thought to have its origins in Ireland, from the Celtic festival of Samhain, when bonfires were built and people wore costumes or disguises to ward off ghosts. By some accounts, it was a time to honor the dead; by others, the end of summer and the harvest time before winter.  

A holiday for the young, Halloween has always been a time of mischief that kept the local police in full force. In 1900, Superior Police Chief George W. Lutton gave some fatherly advice to young boys around town to, “Go a little slow, boys,” or they wouldn’t find any protection from punishment if they went too far.  

Rascals out for serious fun apparently took that warning to heart because no one was caught, thanks to the particularly dark night. On November 1, police found the results of usual Halloween activities—removing front gates, taking down store signs and bicycle racks, soaping windows, and greasing the trolley tracks. A group of boys hitched someone’s wagon to the back of a freight train. It was noticed as the train took off.

Sometimes the offenses were a bit more serious, such as older kids trying to throw streetcars off the track by placing blocks on the rails or breaking windows.

Pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns, which were originally carved turnips and rutabagas filled with ash to keep evil spirits away, were seen carried by sheet-covered ghosts parading down Superior streets.

Lighting the pumpkins occasionally caused problems, like the time kids were playing with one at George Newton’s home at 1621 Hughitt Avenue and the fire department was called to put out some blazing lace curtains.  

To demonstrate the consequences of these shenanigans, the police would occasionally round up the pranksters, put them into the patrol wagon, and take them to the police station. They would have their names recorded on the police blotter, receive a tour of the iron cells, and be told to go home to think about it in their soft warm beds. Some kids were given a court appearance, while others had to put up bail, depending on the damage they had caused.

By 1907, campaigns were emerging for a “safe and sane Halloween.” Private parties by the Rebekah Lodge, the Superior dancing club, the American Legion, and Knights of Columbus were held throughout the city in an attempt to keep youth busy.  

The dining room of the Hotel Superior (site of the current Superior Public Library) was decked out like a farm, with hay bales, fences and jack-o’-lanterns. A fancy ball was held by ushers of the Grand Opera House, which stood across the street from the hotel.  

Bobbing for apples was used for fortune-telling. The first person to pick out an apple from a water-filled bucket without using their hands would be the first to marry. Apples were also used to foresee whom one would marry.

In the 1990s, the City of Superior sent out surveys to find out whether people wanted an old-fashioned Halloween or one of regulated activities and parties, with no door-to-door trick-or-treating.  

This wasn’t a new idea. In 1915, Mayor J.S. Konkel asked the city council to approve a municipal Halloween. Plans were to have several bonfires in different parts of the city, with citizens telling funny stories to the kids and handing out free apples. The following year, the mayor asked local businessmen to donate $100 to buy apples to distribute to every child in the schools.  

Today, children’s librarian Nora Fie holds a hugely successful Halloween party at the Superior Public Library every year. This, too, is not new, although it is on a much larger scale. In 1919, children’s librarian Rosetta Reese announced she would read ghost stories to children the day before Halloween. Over 100 kids showed up and Reese held another story hour on Halloween Day.

The First World War affected everything in American life, including Halloween. Students at Lincoln School in Superior’s North End held a march through the streets with kids carrying Kaiser Wilhelm to his grave.

One of the students was to play the role of the man who was in part responsible for the war, but no one wanted the job, considering it unpatriotic. A dummy wearing a helmet and carrying a gun was used instead, buried under a headstone inscribed with the words, “Down with the Kaiser.”

Through the years, ideas got bigger and more organizations and businesses joined in the fun. Window soaping was still going on, so downtown businessmen decided to use it to their advantage. In 1941, the Junior Chamber of Commerce asked downtown businesses to participate in a soap-drawing contest.

Roth Brothers, Edelstein Gifts, Conrad Fur, Grand Rapids Furniture, Lightbody’s, Stack Brothers, Kresge’s, the Co-op, Ekstroms and the Androy Hotel offered a prize for the best soap drawing. The day after Halloween, Cy Lenchner, who hadn’t been invited to participate, put out a sign in front of his jewelry store asking, “What the heck is wrong with my windows?” He offered a watch as a prize in a contest of his own.  

Whatever its beginnings, Halloween has become a holiday for the young and young-at-heart, attending popular spook houses, masquerade parties and theatre productions.

Kathy Laakso, Director of Events and History Theatre at the Douglas County Historical Society, is getting into the spirit of the spooky holiday with a production of dramatized Edgar Allan Poe stories. 


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