A History of Halloween Heritage in the Berkshires

Blogtoberfest Guest Post #4, by Joe Durwin

Living in the Berkshires, October is always one of the most vivid months to me.  The tenth month of the year in these hills is a boisterous swirl of foliage, harvest festivals, favorite foods, costume parties, and ghost stories.

October is a time of such resplendent colors that Herman Melville named one of our most prominent mountains for it, on account of its striking appearance at this time of year. Even earlier, October of 1844 world was the chosen time for the world to end, according to Pittsfield native and Adventist religion founder William Miller.

Halloween came later.  This pagan-rooted metaphysical holiday, dubbed “Halloween” in the 16th century, saw a slow and awkward emergence in the western world, and did not truly begin the move toward its current hold on the popular imagination of America until the late 19th century.

The evolution of Halloween traditions in the Berkshires was not unlike that of other parts of the country, though perhaps at times more enthusiastic in its embrace of these largely Irish-imported festivities.  In the late 19th century, revelry locally was mostly confined to various privately-organized parties and costume dances, both in homes and in the larger halls.  Performing orchestras, costumes, and parlor games were all common traditions of these events, which were largely attended by adults.

“Some of the ladies were gowned in grotesque and amusing costumes,” the North Adams Transcript said of the bash thrown by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Caledonia Club in 1899, while some 40 couples participated in a cake walk at the one thrown by the Ladies Catholic Benevolent Association, just two of a dozen Halloween parties across North Adams that year.  At an 1898 party in Pittsfield, costumed ghouls are said to have reveled in a game of “Button, button, who’s going to to be the Sheriff?” – which I can only imagine is some variation of the more well known vintage parlor game “Button, Button, who’s got the button?”

Williams College seniors early on enjoyed a holiday practice of going about the darkened streets shouting “Lights off!” while making as great a racket as possible, and according to one commentator townsfolk were much relieved when the young men finally transitioned to the less obstreperous tradition of taking in a Halloween supper together.

The first real city-sponsored public celebration of Halloween came in Pittsfield 90 years ago, in 1922.  The mass festivity was launched “to keep the youth from tearing up the town” and to “forget such vexations as the scarcity of coal, high taxes, and the tariff,” according to George Williston’s History of Pittsfield, 1916-1955.  More than 50,000 people turned up that night to watch a parade that included 70 floats proceeding down Wahconah Street from Park to Charles St.

Regarding the youth issue, this seems to be a general concern across the country by the 1920s and 30s, with pranks and vandalism issues growing to new and shocking levels.  Hurling of cabbages at houses was popular for decades in these parts, though occasionally boys of a more malicious bent would turn to tossing stones instead. Issues of this kind ultimately coalesced and helped lead to a resurgence of the old European practice of ‘guising,’ what we now know as “Trick or Treat.”  More and more youth-oriented events emerged over time, with churches and organizations like the Boy Scouts stepping in to offer more condoned activities over the following years, such as this notice for two Pittsfield youth parties at First Congregational Church in 1942.

It was in the mid 1940s to 1950s that Halloween in Pittsfield and surrounding areas reached truly epic proportions.  In 1944, the city’s Parks Department launched its modern parade, in which children and adults marched around the Common with an estimated 1500 people in attendance.  Costumed socials were no longer the province of adults only, and while 75 attended a grown up bash by the Daughters of Isabella that year, Superintendent James Keegan tallied 600 kids at a Tuesday night party at the Boys Club.

It was not until the following Halloween, in the jubilant months following the end of World War II, that this event really reached its stride.

20,000 revelers turned out in downtown as parade Marshal George Galt lead a parade of two thousand costumed marchers down North Street from Park Square to Madison Avenue.  Single crowds of hundreds flocked to various parties and movies following, 900 packed into the Boys Club alone.

“Downtown Halloween hilarity captivated Pittsfield last night as it had not done since the latest attempt at anything like a community-wide organized program many years ago,” said the Berkshire Evening Eagle.

The festivities continued to grow, and other towns were not far behind as the county grew and prospered in the post war boom.  Dalton had what it called its “biggest Halloween celebration in history” up to that time in 1946, and Great Barrington launched a parade in 1948, which by its second year garnered a crowd of some 5000 spectators.  Such sanctioned events never did away with more illicit hijinks completely; a notation from 1947 relays that state police responded to 40 calls from persons disturbed by pranks on All Hallows Eve.

1954 GE Float flying saucer

It was the G.E. floats of the 1950s, though, that made a more powerfully lasting impression on the Halloween recollections of Pittsfield.  In 1950, employees of the Pittsfield manufacturer banded together to create Pitt the Dragon.  400 workers put together a beast which stood sixteen feet high and 149 feet long, with 24 foot flapping wings, and a head that turned and snorted smoke.  Three people were required to operate the monster from inside.  At least 17,000 onlookers awed at the fearsome industrial dragon, which was later featured along with some of the company’s other Halloween marvels, such as a giant witch and a popcorn shooting spaceship, in the October 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics.

Halloweens varied throughout the decade, though, from a freezing cold 1951 that saw parade crowds down to 7,500 (but apparently did nothing to cut down on pranks, which cost the city of Pittsfield about $770 that year)  to up to 25,000 gathered in 1956 to watch a  1,000 paraders and 13 floats, including a G.E.’s contribution that year of a giant trick or treat jack-in-the-box.

“Gory, macabre and eerie” was the verdict of 1960’s prize-winning float, a deathly pirate ship put forth by Morewood School.  Imagery became more ghoulish with the visual inspirations of an ever growing canon of films and television, and floats more nuanced than massive.  The parade was running nearly an hour in length by 1963, and 55 youths won $2 gift certificates to Zayre’s dressed as such things as as brides and grooms, decks of cards, six-packs of beer, skeletons,  clowns peddling unicycles, George Washington and John F. Kennedy.

1970 was another great year for the parade, with 20,000 residents still braving the chilly sidewalks to admire the Berkshire Eagle‘s 33 foot skeleton and the Girl Scouts’ winning “Halloween Around the World” float. With the ever prevalent rise in electronic and other diversions over the years, though, parade attendance in Pittsfield was back down to closer to 12,000 by late 70s, even before the city’s population was fully halved by the incremental departure of G.E. over the following years.  Reducing crowds at things like the parade was not only an index of population and interest, but of proliferating types of activities, as trick or treat became more universal and thrilling “haunted houses” began to crop up.  The Junior League organized one acclaimed early scare tour in 1975, and North Adams orchestrated its first haunting attraction the following year.

That loss of population, combined with continuous reductions in Parks Department funding that began even well before the days of economic declines, had some effect of winnowing enthusiasm for the mass Halloween celebrations in Pittsfield.  Appetite for late October spookiness hardly dwindled, though and in fact have seen continuous increased spending year after year, regardless of the national economic climate. But in more recent years the revelry has seemed to become more segregated, with very different sets of activities enjoyed by youth than the ones designated for those over 21.

In just the last few years, however, such “old fashioned” community gatherings are seemingly making a come back.  The final 3rd Thursday fair of the year is Halloween themed, and downtown merchants have instituted their own pre-trick-or-treat days before the real thing.Thinly stretched municipal employees and valiant volunteers continue to work hard to create a memorable Halloween parade each year, and attendance at its new location on Tyler Street rose this year to approximately 9500, from about 7500 last year.

The season seems to grow earlier each year, too, with the proliferation of public and private events, ever more carefully staggered so as to encourage multiple masquerade excursions, rather than overly split a market share of patrons that is half that enjoyed by attractions of our parents and grandparents.  Local observance in recent years of the growing international craze that is World Zombie Day has also helped add to this experience of Hallowe’en as an amorphous holiday season.

With polled participation in All Hallows Eve at an all time high in America this year at 70% up from 68.1% last year, 170 million U.S. residents will spend an estimated $8 billion (up from around 7 last year) on costumes, candy, decorations, foods, and other seasonal touches.  This interest now maintains two year round costume stores in this city (down from none for a couple years prior) in addition to the glut of pop up shopping and big box merchandise space occurring each fall.

With it come all sorts of tertiary correlates, such as the unprecedented wave of interest in  hauntings and spooky folklore seen in local media this October, or the proliferation of para-tourism as packed tours file through area venues in greater numbers than ever in search of authentic otherworldliness.

I say, “Bring it on!” … All too often, outsiders have a skewed view of this region as a summer bastion.  For my money, though, Fall is what the Berkshires do best.

282250_10151120647626374_596750537_n.jpg Joe Durwin is a local writer, folklorist and historian; his column These Mysterious Hills has run on a semi-regular basis in The Advocate and iBerkshires.com since 2004, and his work on lore and mysteries of the region has been featured in Fate Magazine, Haunted Times, William Shatner’s “Weird or What” for History Canada, MSG Films’ “Bennington Triangle,” and the  PBS documentary “Things That Go Bump in the Night.”

2 thoughts on “A History of Halloween Heritage in the Berkshires

  1. tammy says:

    I remember the first “haunted house” attraction in North Adams. It was in 1976 at the old City Hall, which was torn down. Kmart was later built there.

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