Halloween when I was young on the farm was so different than now…
First of all there were never any of those fancy haunted houses that people flock to today for an expensive scare. We did not need them, we lived in one. On a daily basis in our old farm house we had to deal with squeaky stairs, cobwebs, black cats, bats, lizards and the ghosts of ancestors who had died in the house from generations past.
Many a dare was made and accepted, just to see if you were brave enough to go upstairs alone in a old farm house. Going into an attic alone after dark was a feat accomplished by only a few of the most stout-hearted. If memory serves me correctly, I believe success in this quest required a beard and that folk songs have been penned to herald such bravery. No one descended into the dark basement alone. Not since the skunk outbreak in the large pickling crock incident.
Then, there were the vampires. The vampires in our family story was often shared by older cousins when all of the adults had left the room. It was just too scary of a situation to be shared with grown-ups who seemly found reasons to get upset about just about every thing.
Our family’s vampires came in the form of two old anemic aunties, with dirty hankies poking out from between emaciated eighty-year-old breasts while bare bony shoulders protruded from over-sized faded 1930’s silk flapper dresses, who may have been real red-heads in their youth.
Coloring your hair or being a natural red head in our dark-haired Swedish family would have been fuel enough to generate a rumor or two. However, that had nothing do with the vampire story. Nor, was it that these ladies lived in the scariest old house in town that had its own tower with a witches hat that great grandpa Ole had purchased cheap because the previous owner had committed suicide by hanging himself in the garage. Or that they had dead people and tornado pictures hung on the walls of their sunlight deprived home. It wasn’t because they lived in the dark and kept all of their window curtains closed. Nor was it because of the mournful sounds made by the pump organ located in their front entry hall. It was not from the spooky stairs that led to upstairs rooms that no child had ever been brave enough to explore. Or the doorways in the house that led to nowhere. It, also, wasn’t because their cafe was a personal favorite of a democrat named Hubert H. Humphrey. No these ladies were tagged as vampires, because of their fur coats.
Whenever the old gals ventured out to our farm to call on my folks and grand folks, they would come into the house clutching, with a death grip, their fox furs. Their hold was so tight, that I never knew if they expected someone to steal those things right off of their bony shoulders, or if the animals weren’t quite dead yet and would spring to life and just run away. You see, the animals in those stoles were completely in tact, just flat and sewn together. Heads, feet and tails just bounced when those old gals strutted their stuff.
It was the hollow dead eyes and bared snarling sharp yellow teeth of those fashion forward foxes that led to the vampire rumors. As you were pulled into a tight bear hug by the aunties, many a child was convinced it was just a ruse so that those yellow teeth could get one more taste of kid flesh. Yup, at our house it was practically impossible to distinguish a Sunday dinner from a Halloween scare.
Halloween decorations in those days consisted of carved pumpkins. Oh sure, on occasion someone would get all high and mighty and buy scary pictures at the store to tape in the windows of their home. There was a fine line between acceptable Halloween activities and tongue cluckers. Those scary pictures displayed as bold as brass for all the world to see merely indicated which folks required more prayer and in cases of extraordinary bad taste and judgement public shaming in the church parking lot after the conclusion of Sunday services. Pumpkin carving…yes…scary pictures…not so much.
Pumpkin carving was an art form based on geometry…triangle eyes, square teeth and oval mouths. Nobody bought pumpkins. If you did not grow pumpkins, a family member or neighbor usually had plenty of extras. If they had extra pumpkins, they always had extra squash. The only really scary thing about our carved pumpkins was having to eat so much squash and the thrill of feeding the seeds and pumpkin guts to over-excited hogs.
Costuming was a creative exercise in recycling. What you had on the farm and could put together with a sewing machine or duct tape became your costume. On rare occasions, as a really big treat, us farm kids, just like those fancy town kids, purchased a Halloween mask at Nelson brothers, our town’s main grocery and dry goods store. While those special masks only cost a few cents, they often turned out to be more pain than gain.
Store purchased masks in those days were not like the rubber ones that are sold today. Our masks were made from some type of semi-rigid sharp plastic whose edges could produce tears, blood and band aides. The masks were held on with a white elastic cord with two sharp metal ends that went through small holes in the mask. Should you want to try on or “pretend” with your mask before the big night, you could count on a sibling pulling back on the elastic string and giving you painful, “snap!”
After a couple of those “snaps” the metal pieces that flew past your unprotected eyes would rip holes so big into your mask that the elastic string could no longer be reattached.
This situation required a decision on the part of the child. You could either hold your mask up with your mittened hand or you could use tons of scotch tape to try and reattach the plastic band. The tape option, while always tried first, never worked as the metal pieces just slid right out from under the tape as soon as you stretched the band to go around your head. You quickly learned that the mittened hand option was a mandate. Your next move was to search for a treat collection bag with handles that you could hold with your one free hand, that was free of toxic farm chemicals and that had not been worn on anyone’s feet.
Then, too, no matter if you chose to be a princess, prince, clown or cat someone would take the time to make sure that the nose of your mask was poked in before the big night. Once a nose was poked in, your only option was going forth on your Halloween quest with a wrinkly snout.
After you had your costume ready and your pumpkins carved it would not be long before the big night arrived. Not long at all. Our family’s motto for Halloween preparation was, “There’s no time like the present.” On a busy farm in the middle of harvest, Halloween preparations were commenced and concluded about a hour before you got into the car to go trick or treating.
Off you would go to visit neighbors and relatives in the dark of the night. Excitement and trepidation were your close companions as your car drove down those long, dark, tree-draped, rural driveways dressed up in unrecognizable outfits to scare the unwary….farm dogs.
Farm dogs, as a rule, do not take to strange varmints or characters invading their territory. Thwarting invaders is in their job description. For them, Halloween had to be a special kind of nightmare. In fact, I think the only scares given on Halloween in the country were to and from farm dogs.
As soon as you opened your car door, you could hear them snarling as they frenziedly hurled themselves against rickety barn doors held shut by century old latches mended many times with rusty wire. If loose, those fired-up watch dogs chased you to the front steps of a home as the owner yelled from the porch steps, “If you run fast, he won’t catch you!” Or, the ever popular “Just swing your candy bag at em, that should keep em away!” Or, my personal favorite, “Don’t worry, he’s had his rabies shots, I had him done when doc was out to castrate the calves a couple of weeks back, just make a run for it, it’ll turn out all right!”
Yes, participating in Halloween activities in those days was so much different than today. Our costumes and decorations for the most part came at no cost, the quest for frights was delivered by dogs, not costumes or strangers and the search for sweets often ended up with your bag filled with homemade cookies, popcorn balls, shelled peanuts, apples, lots of candy corn and a little bit of chocolate…and, you were thrilled with your haul.
An old-fashioned farm Halloween is best described like the old folks used to say in the social section of “The Independent Review,” our local newspaper that published our neighborhood’s doings, “A good time was had by all!”
This recipe for Pumpkin Bars comes from my hometown church cookbook. This is the only pumpkin bar recipe that I ever make or share with my friends. It is quite simply the best and has always been a Halloween and Thanksgiving treat favorite at my home.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Grease two 9 X 13 pans or one large 10 X 15 bar pan
In a large mixing bowl beat together:
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
Add the following dry ingredients:
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Beat with hand mixer until well combined and smooth.
2 cups pumpkin (#2 can)
Spread evenly in baking pans. Bake for about 25-30 minutes until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool.
3 ounce package of cream cheese, softened
1 Tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup butter, softened
1-3/4 cups powdered sugar
In a medium-sized mixing bowl beat ingredients together with a hand mixer until smooth.
Frost the bars. Cut and serve.
Blogger’s Note: If you want a very good moist pumpkin cake, put all of the batter into one 9 X 13 pan. Bake for 40-45 minutes. I always add 1 cup of raisins when making a cake. Dried cranberries are also an excellent addition.
May everyone have a safe and happy Halloween!