Trick or treat: Halloween comes to town with costumes, pranks, seers, dances, and haunted houses

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The Air-O Dance Hall, later called the Swiss Inn, was once located on Route 20 west of Dunnsville opposite today’s Victoria Acres. In recent years, it has again become the fashion for adults to enjoy wearing costumes and partying at Halloween.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

In viewing this postcard photo of Altamont’s village park, try to imagine a hodge-podge of shutters lined up along the fence in no particular order and a partial car body resting in the gazebo.

Before long, our door bells will be ringing, set off by excited, impatient, costumed children whose “trick or treat” is a demand for free candy. In the meantime, some wary homeowners fear older, mischief-making teens may pull a “trick,” resulting in vandalism in the neighborhood.

It hasn’t always been like this because Halloween was only established in Guilderland and surrounding rural towns in the last decades of the 19th Century, before becoming a popular event by the 1920s.

It all began with the prehistoric Celts in Ireland and Scotland where Samhain was the beginning of their new year. It was looked upon as a day when the dead came back to visit the living, things supernatural were about, the future could be foretold, and mischievous behavior was accepted.

When Christian missionaries came to convert the pagan Celts, they wisely allowed the Celts to keep many of their old customs as long as it didn’t conflict with Christian teachings. With All Saints Day the next day, All Hallows Eve became Hallowe’en.

With the huge influx of Irish in the 1840s and after, the name and tradition was brought along to the United States. The Scots added the happenings with the wearing of costumes that night. The customs took some time to reach out to Guilderland and other rural towns where there were few Scots or Irish.

Using the local columns of The Enterprise as a reference to get an overview of the appearance of Halloween in Guilderland, I followed the establishment of the holiday as part of the town’s cultural fabric.

In the years from 1884, when the local paper began publishing, to 1889, there is only one reference to Hallowe’en and that in a piece of fiction set in Scotland called “Spells, or No Spells.”

Guilderland was slow in joining the festivities because, while from 1890 to 1899, eighteen mentions of Hallowe’en show up, almost none of them relate to Guilderland. Feura Bush in Bethlehem reported all sorts of pranks and there were a few parties in other places.

The only mention for Guilderland was in the State Road (Parkers Corners area) column in 1895, which reported, “The ground was covered with beautiful snow, which made it quite difficult for the young men to perform their bag of tricks.”

Obviously the tradition of big boys having “fun” on Hallowe’en had spread. Guilderland Center’s St. Marks Church had a pumpkin-pie social scheduled on Hallowe’en, and there may have been a few private parties, but the town seemed otherwise quiet.

Hallowe’en happenings begin to pick up with the first decade of the 20th Century. Several churches planned Hallowe’en-night socials or suppers during these years.

Albany, home to a large Irish population, was the scene of a Hallowe’en Carnival that was an attraction to many in surrounding towns. With frequent local rail service, in 1905, Altamont “furnished its full quota of visitors to the Hallowe’en Carnival in Albany Monday and Tuesday,” The Enterprise reported.

This was not the only part of town represented there, and surely observers must have returned with ideas for future Hallowe’ens here in town.

During this time, private Hallowe’en parties given in Guilderland were beginning to be mentioned in Enterprise columns. One was at the McKownville home of William J. Knoles in 1906 when guests arrived “each arrayed in costumes representing the spirit of Hallowe’en.

Jack-o’-lanterns and pumpkins decorated the house, the first mention of jack-o’-lanterns in Guilderland. Masks or costumes were noted in two other party descriptions. However, in general, if there were other Hallowe’en activities, they weren’t noted in the local columns of the paper.

Mischief abounds

Hallowe’en’s other aspect was pranks and mischief, and at least some of Guilderland’s youth really took to that.

At different times during this decade, there was a complaint from Guilderland Center, relief from State Road near Parkers Corners that “that the young people … enjoyed themselves visiting the neighbors, but did no damage,” a comment from Fullers that Hallowe’en had come “with its usual gaieties and mischief” and word from Altamont that the boys should mind that their pranks are “amenable to law.”

It was obvious to Altamont residents one Nov. 1 that the “spooks and goblins had been out in force” the night before. Probably because in Altamont many homes and businesses were clustered closer together than in other parts of town, that’s where the most mischief seemed to have taken place.

With the coming of the decade of the teens, Hallowe’en had really begun to catch on with children becoming increasingly involved in Hallowe’en activities. A party at Guilderland Center’s cobblestone school for the “scholars” was given by their teacher, but this may have been an unusual event as school parties were almost never mentioned at this time.

A Meadowdale girl’s birthday party had a Hallowe’en flavor with decoration of witches and broomsticks. Girls who were members of the Altamont Reformed Church’s Laurel Band really got into the spirit with a party featuring jack-o’-lanterns, witches, black cats, ghosts, shrieks and groans, a skeleton, and a chamber of horrors.

Probably some adults had as much fun putting that together as the girls did being frightened. Another party brought out children dressed in many funny costumes, playing games and enjoying pranks.

There was growing popularity for adults to attend private parties, often featuring Hallowe’en decorations, costumes, games, and “stunts.” In the hamlet of Guilderland one year, parties were “numerous” with “groups of masked revelers everywhere on the street.”

Social Clubs such as the Fortnightly Club of Parkers Corners or Altamont’s Colony Club used Hallowe’en themes for meetings or parties. Hallowe’en events continued to be sponsored by churches.

Parkers Corners Methodist Church’s Social offered a seer to read fortunes and the opportunity to have your photo taken, probably for people in costume while, in McKownville, the Methodists were offering a prize for the best costume.

The evening’s activities now went beyond private parties and involved the wider community. Altamont’s children were on the streets “costumed as ghosts, spirits, elves, clowns, and various other characters.” This was very likely true in other parts of Guilderland as well.

Pranks continued to the delight of the older boys and to the aggravation of the adults. In 1910, the Altamont Village Board appointed Frank St. John as Police Officer just before Hallowe’en, using the occasion to warn the pranksters that “wanton injury to property or cruelty to dumb animals” would not be tolerated.

On more than one occasion during those years, pranksters entered the Settles Hill one-room school and created messy disorder.

The roaring ’20s

With the arrival of the roaring ’20s, Guilderland folks really got into the spirit of the holiday. Events, whether private or church-sponsored, seemed to have become more elaborate with masquerade encouraged by having prizes for the funniest or the best or prettiest or most comical costumes.

With the popularity of Halloween dances growing, there was a 1929 Mardi Gras affair (yes, it was for Hallowe’en) featuring dancing to the Castle Club Orchestra and prizes for the best costumes at Altamont’s Masonic Hall.

Children had more activities to choose from. Fullers children enjoyed a party at their one-room school, but there’s no way of telling if it was a one-time event or if children were having parties in school as a regular thing. In those one-room schools, much depended on the individual teacher.

Over 100 costumed members of Altamont’s Lutheran Sunday School were treated to a supper at the church followed by stunts such as whistling “Yankee Doodle” after eating a dry cracker. The party-goers ducked for apples and pinned the tail on the donkey.

Girls in the Laurel Band dressed as “rubes,” ghosts, witches, Indians, gypsies, and even “vamps.” Children were mentioned going door-to-door in Altamont.

The pranks!

Then the pranks! A 1920 front-page news story carried a report to Altamont taxpayers from the school board.

“On the night of October 30th last the Altamont High School building was forcibly entered and certain depredations committed to the indignation and disgust of our taxpayers. The Board was shocked by the deplorable conditions they found.”

The names of the young men were discovered and apparently the leniency of the board toward the perpetrators caused much community anger. Justifying themselves, the board members claimed, since no material damage had been done, they hesitated to bring public disgrace on the boys, and no apology was required. Might these have been the sons of some of the most prominent people in the village?

Hallowe’ens of the 1930s began with the most famous of the Altamont pranks, still talked about more than 80 years later! The boys removed half of a hundred shutters from houses along Main Street, mixed them, and then lined them up around the fence of the village park.

Part of an auto body was resting in the bandstand, while on the roof of a refreshment stand behind the A&P, a wagon was perched. Soap decorations were on many a window.

Sadly, someone’s fence was taken down and broken up. Surely pranks were taking place all over town, but the village seemed to have had the worst problem.

An exasperated taxpayer, addressing an anonymous letter published in The Enterprise to Mayor Martin in 1934 demanded that something be done about the older boys and the damage they do on Hallowe’en.

By the mid-1930s, an attempt was made in Altamont to defuse the situation by having Hallowe’en parties at school. “There were spooks and hobgoblins in the children’s annual observation of Hallowe’en,” the paper reported.

In the classrooms, there was ducking for apples, pinning the tail on the donkey, and fortune-telling. The whole idea was, if children celebrated in “a quiet way” in school, they will be taught the lesson of respect for other people’s property.

That was apparently the inspiration for those classroom parties we all remember. Whether classroom parties ended the mischief is another question!

Adult parties and socials continued to be scheduled, but for a change there were commercial venues such as the Air-O Dance Hall, which had opened in 1930, where a Masquerade Dance with prizes and novelties and music by the Five Aces was scheduled for Hallowe’en that year.

War dampens Merriment

The coming of the war in 1941 put the damper on Hallowe’en festivities, except for children, and resumed slowly after the war’s end.

In 1949, the Altamont Kiwanis Club began the tradition of community groups becoming involved in providing Halloween activities with a party, inviting all children to the Masonic Hall, beginning with a parade originating in the village park led by Altamont’s fire trucks and the Altamont High School band.

Children received noisemakers and at the hall there were prizes, refreshments, and, for the older children,  movies at 9 p.m. It was a smashing success with 100 or more children taking part and the scene of overexcited children with noisemakers at the hall was described in the next week’s paper as “bedlam.”

Within two years, the Guilderland Center Civil Club and Guilderland Center Fire Department also began the tradition of an annual Halloween party.

However, the 1950s brought us the Halloween we remember and remains today. In 1950, the words “trick or treat” came into use.

A Disney Hallowe’en cartoon about Uncle Donald Duck’s three nephews — Huey, Louie, and Dewey — was called “Trick or Treat,” supposedly the origin of the familiar Hallowe’en demand.

Also at that time, candy manufacturers began Hallowe’en advertising in a big way and with that, modern Hallowe’en had come to Guilderland and all of America.