To most all of us Halloween seems like it has happened forever, but as with many traditions, it just isn’t so.
Halloween is a day for kids. Nearly everyone living today, under the age of 90 anyway, has probably grown up with this tradition. It’s the one day of the year when a kid can boldly go up to a complete stranger’s house and literally ASK for candy or some other treat, and expect to get it. It’s completely OK to do so.
Our parents, grandparents, maybe even great-grandparents have celebrated Halloween.
It’s been around for over 100 years, but it’s not today what it was to kids in the U.S, in Nevada, even Lincoln County, way back when, and for a good many more years after that.
Today, it is customary on Halloween for children to go in costume from house to house with the question “Trick or treat?” The word “trick” refers to a (mostly idle) threat to perform some kind of mischief on the homeowner, or their property if no treat is given.
At the turn of the 20th Century though, it wasn’t the same as it is now. Then, the tricks really did happen, and had been for several years prior.
Historians note the practice of dressing up in costumes for Halloween started here in the U.S. in 1911, and it may have taken a few years more before that reached Lincoln County.
We might not think so, but it’s really a very old idea, dating back to the Middle Ages (500-1500 A.D.) in European countries, when children, sometimes adults, too, went door-to-door begging for treats on holidays, including some of the celebrations around Christmas time.
In the European Catholic Church of the time, October 31 was known as All Hallows’ Eve, followed on Nov. 1, by a practice once known as “souling,” when poor folk would go from house to house, receiving food in return for saying prayers for the dead. Shakespeare even makes mention of this in his play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593).
European immigrants brought the custom to the U.S., like many other traditions that came with them from the old country. Over the years, other elements were added.
According to historians, the first mention of dressing up in costumes for Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve) in the U.S., and going around the neighborhood, is found in 1911 from the newspaper in Kingston, Ohio.
The first known use of the term “Trick or treat,” on Halloween, is noted in a printed publication in Blackie, Alberta, Canada in 1927.
Halloween in the early part of the 20th century in America, including Lincoln County, was not at all about getting candy, it was about performing mischief. That was the most fun for kids, and some adventurous young adults may have joined in, too.
An opportunity for some strenuous fun it was. No real damage was done except perhaps to the temper of someone who then had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, and who knows whatever else, that showed up missing the next day. Many of the things that had been in plain sight just that morning were now nowhere to be seen. Cows, horses, donkeys, dogs, and a few cats, were known to go missing Halloween night also. Pigs? Well, maybe not.
Giving out candy and other kinds of treats, in lieu of the tricks, does not seem to come into play, in the U.S. anyway, until during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But, there wasn’t much to give in those days. Some of the old timers around Lincoln County recall getting a treat as a kid on Halloween during the years of the Depression was rare, “because people just didn’t have any money to buy candy to give out anyway.” So, the kids did the mischief.
In the Pahranagat Valley, Theresa Wadsworth (1901-2003), remembered when she was a child, around the age of 10, there were no streetlights in Alamo.
After dark on Oct. 31, she said, “the older kids would come out, ready for mischief and a little mayhem.” They would group up at someone’s house or maybe on a street corner, and plan the evening’s events.
First order of business was usually to go around to various houses and put honey on the doorknobs or door handles. “You had to be careful though, that your own house was not a target,” Theresa said.
The second plan of attack was to get into the backyard of a house and tip over the privy (outhouse). Indoor plumbing, especially an indoor toilet, for some people in Lincoln County was still some years ahead.
In her book, Memories of Early Alamo, Theresa wrote Halloween, “would be the night of nights. We could just go out and do as we pleased, any kind of tricks, and get away with it. Our specialty was tipping over privies.” Similar events probably took place in Panaca, Caliente and Pioche, too.
Was there ever a time when someone was actually inside the privy when the kids came calling? Might have been.
Another favorite, Wadsworth notes, was to take some of the farmer’s wagons and bring them out into the street, not too close to the house, but enough to be a nuisance to someone coming down the street in another wagon (or car, after the automobile finally arrived in the County).
Something called “Tic-Tac” was yet another good trick for Halloween. The late Lois Higbee, and her sister, the late Nedra Shumway, daughters of Theresa Wadsworth, said their mother used to tell them some of her Halloween stories, of kids getting an empty spool of thread, the wooden ones, and putting several notches in the edge around the spool, tie some string to it, and wind it up real tight. Then, a rod was inserted through the center hole so the spool would spin real good. The whole thing was then placed against a glass window of the targeted house, and by pulling the string real fast, would make an awful racket against the window, startling the daylights out of the occupants inside. Success! What Fun! Who’s house next?
Theresa said, “They was always doin’ that, so’s to scare the littler kids as well as adults.
Burning hay bales in the streets and throwing green tomatoes were other favorites. Some things never change.
Of the things kids could get away with in the early years, as Wadsworth stated, by the 1950s kids would have gotten themselves into big trouble for doing. However, that didn’t really stop them from trying, to some it might be worth the risk. What do you remember doing?
But, getting candy simply by just asking for it, greatly reduced the desire to do some sort of mischief, unless it be to scare a group of teenage girls that might be hanging around together. That will probably always remain.
However, since World War II, Halloween has been tamed and highly commercialized, greatly toned down from the goings on that happened all around Nevada, Lincoln County included, on Halloween way back in the days of yesteryear.