Halloween night is a special time for children across the Northwoods. Many people have fond childhood memories of Halloween traditions, but a lot of those traditions are more recent than most of us realize. In the not so distant past, Halloween in the Northwoods meant mostly tricks and very few treats. Historian Gary Entz has the story.
Halloween has been celebrated in America since Scottish and Irish immigrants brought the tradition with them when they came to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Halloween soon became a time of mischief and pranks designed to scare people in an era when there was no light at night except candlelight. The pranks of the day were often destructive and would rise to what modern people would consider outright vandalism, but it was tolerated for one night of the year.
As the Northwoods was settled and families made their homes in the region these Halloween traditions came along. In the late 19th and first few decades of the 20th century, pranks in Rhinelander and other Northwoods communities were rather typical. In those days it was much more common for residents to have a wrought iron fence around their yards than it is today. Gangs of boys would go around town, remove all the gates they could lay their hands on, then pile them up together in some difficult location. Wood piles and outhouses were pushed over, horse wagons lifted onto sidewalks, and downtown windows generously soaped or waxed.
By the 1930s most wrought iron fences and horse wagons were gone, but Prohibition brought more fun. On the day after Halloween night, many downtown merchants would find the words “Beer, Five Cents Here” painted onto their windows and covered with a generous coating of wax, making it difficult to remove. Boys knocked on doors demanding sweets or money, and it was recommended to accommodate them as the consequences for ignoring them could be bad. It was not unheard of to find hot paraffin wax poured onto automobiles parked on the street, which frequently caused damage when scraping it off.
Sometimes the pranks went too far, as when some boys were caught shooting out streetlamps. Others were cited for throwing a life-sized stuffed figure off the viaduct in front of a moving vehicle and causing an accident. Some homeowners fought back by firing buckshot into the backsides of fleeing youngsters. All this led local authorities to seek a way to curtail the Halloween night free-for-all, particularly as the 1940s came along and World War II soap shortages made the waste on Halloween seem increasingly frivolous.
Efforts in Rhinelander had been going on since the mid-1920s to host parties in town and to give young people something to do other than destruction. This took on added significance during the war years in the Northwoods and across the nation. The idea of making Halloween a holiday for the youngest children instead of for teenagers came out of this era. The earliest suggestion of door-to-door “Trick or Treating” first appeared in magazines of the late 1930s. The earliest Northwoods suggestion I have found appeared in 1948 when the local Methodist Church sponsored a “Tricks and Treats” event for children.
Since the early 1950s, Halloween has been a day for young children to enjoy. Pranks still happen, but toilet paper in a tree is far calmer than what used to go on.