A century ago, on Oct. 31, 1922, Lima’s downtown burst into life in a spontaneous celebration of Halloween.
“Gorgeously bedecked legions of Hallowe’en cast Lima under the spell of carnival gaiety last night,” the Lima Republican-Gazette wrote Nov. 1, 1922. “With no other warning than the bald announcement that Hallowe’en had arrived, these legions buried the city’s everydayness under a riot of color and mirth.”
The rival The Lima News noted that “the streets of the business district in Lima were crowded from building walls to curb, groups of small lads, bursting with vivacious activity would dodge helter-skelter among the pedestrians, but the spirit (and spirits) of Hallowe’en prevailed and the boisterous crowds enjoyed the spectacle to the utmost.”
Besides the big downtown revel, “dances were held in almost every hall in the city,” The Lima News wrote, adding that the holiday “was attended by less than the usual number of complaints” of destruction of property. “Most of the complaints reported to headquarters said that small boys were throwing stones or piling obstructions into the streets.”
In 1924, Lima officials, perhaps remembering the spontaneous celebration two years earlier, hatched plans they were confident would tame Halloween, mainly by giving potential pranksters something else to do. The city hedged its bet by appointing 25 special policemen to “patrol the residential districts” while the main body of police were downtown.
Lima “will hold the biggest and most prestigious celebration of Halloween Friday night that has ever been known in the city’s history,” The Lima News proclaimed Oct. 31, 1924. “The celebration, which will be in the form of a Mardi Gras, will be staged by Lima school children in the downtown section of the city. More than 7,500 children are expected to participate.”
The city had held a similar Halloween-Mardi Gras celebration in 1913, but the party had ended during World War I.
It worked. The hybrid Halloween-Mardi Gras celebration drew 10,000 participants and 60,000 spectators to downtown Lima, according to a generous estimate in The Lima News on Nov. 1, 1924.
“One big thing the celebration accomplished was the fact that it drew the children from all parts of town and depredations were very few and far between during the evening. In past years,” the newspaper added, “with no celebrations in which they might take part, the children ran rampant over the city and thoughtlessly destroyed property. After Friday night’s celebration, they were too tired to get into mischief.”
All was well, although one Lima policeman admitted at the time that he missed some of the more creative, labor-intensive “depredations” of his boyhood.
“Youth of today doesn’t celebrate Hallowe’en in the hilarious manner that they did in years gone by,” policeman Charles Hamilton, who was born in 1880, told The Lima News in 1924.
“Officer Hamilton can remember far back into the past when wooden sidewalks still bordered Market Street from Baxter Street on west and when the hill that starts at that point was much steeper than it is at the present time,” the newspaper explained, and “one of the favorite Hallowe’en tricks of those days was to loosen the old sidewalks and slide them down the hill for several blocks.”
“Wagons, buggies and carts were very likely to disappear during the night, only to be discovered parked on top of a nearby barn or house flaunting defiance at the owner,” The Lima News wrote.
Once, Hamilton told the newspaper, pranksters were caught by a shotgun-toting buggy owner after disassembling his buggy and placing it “on the very peak of a high barn.” The pranksters spent the rest of the night taking the buggy apart again, lowering the parts off the roof and reassembling the buggy on the ground, he said.
Ten years later, another longtime Lima policemen spoke wistfully of some of the pranksters of old.
“I’m sure the boys used to work harder and achieve more outlandish results in ushering in the first of November,” Sgt. Charles McCoy, who had joined the department in 1896, told The Lima News on Oct. 31, 1934.
Sgt. Bruce Godfrey, a Lima policeman since 1922, noted that “the big thing 15 years ago was to corral a flock of sheep from various farms” and then stampede them through the streets. “Believe me, a flock of sheep on the loose is somewhat of a problem,” he said. “And did you ever try to catch a frightened red-painted pig?”
However, not all the pranks were seen as harmless fun, and Lima’s newspapers had complained of them as far back as the 1860s. The Allen County Democrat advised readers “Watch out for your cabbages!” as Halloween approached in 1866, adding that the “the only observance here will be by the boys, who will celebrate the occasion with much noise and confusion, and the destruction of any unfortunate cabbage heads which may be found exposed to the frost upon that occasion.” Cabbage heads were hurled at front doors which were also pelted with shelled corn and beans, while pumpkins and squash were pulled and piled up.
In 1874, a local newspaper wrote that “considerable damage was done” on Halloween.
“This is all wrong,” the Allen County Democrat wrote. “If the boys can’t have their fun without injuring other people, they had better stop the whole business.”
But, of course, they didn’t stop, and a certain amount of mayhem occurred yearly.
“But along with the mischief, there were also taffy pulls, dances, masquerade parties, oyster dinners and fortune reading sessions,” The Lima News wrote Oct. 31, 2001.
In 1913, Lima’s Progressive Association came up with a plan to shift the focus of Halloween from pranks to a party. And so, on Oct. 30, 1913, the first Mardi Gras celebration was held on Halloween.
People began gathering before dusk bringing their confetti and whistles eventually, according to one account, packing the Public Square solid “from east to west and north to south. Fifteen thousand people packed the parade route from Memorial Hall downtown to see the parade, which included floats from every school in the city. Fireworks and Roman candles were shot from the top of buildings.
The Lima News wrote that “it was an orderly crowd that finally wended its way home, the latest revelers leaving the Square shortly after midnight, leaving ashes, confetti, horns, etc., for the dwarfs and elves that might yet come from below the earth to see what these earth men had been doing.”
It was the last Mardi Gras on Halloween until 1924, after which it was held sporadically for several years before dying out during the Great Depression.
“Finally, in 1935, the tradition of trick-or-treating began,” The Lima News wrote in October 2001. “As the News reported at the time, ‘shakedown replaces break up on Halloween.’”
And Judge Neal Lora told the newspaper, “After all, it’s more fun giving the children apples and cakes than to spend the next day combing the neighborhood for departed furniture.”
This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.
See past Reminisce stories at limaohio.com/tag/reminisce
Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]