Tucked against the western border of Anoka County where the Rum River joins the mighty Mississippi, lies the county seat, Anoka, Minnesota.
Anoka is small by city standards, yet it holds a world title.
It is the Halloween Capital of the World and every October hosts a major celebration of that holiday, complete with a parade and many other events.
This annual celebration is fast approaching its centennial.
Known by the church calendar as All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 1919 had been a bad day in Anoka.
Time-honored tradition held that on the night before, “Hallowed Eve,” (later shortened to Halloween) spirits walked the earth.
In past ages rift with fears and superstitions, people believed that devils and demons, ghosts and witches, and other creatures from the netherworld returned to visit their old haunts, and that it was best to stay out of their way — if you knew what was good for you.
As time passed, people became more enlightened, but still the notion that the night before All Saints’ Day had to be observed in a mischievous manner persisted.
Usually it was the young males of the community who rose to the occasion.
In the 19th century, their shenanigans consisted mainly of harmless pranks such as playing tricks on their neighbors.
But with the turn of the century, once high-spirited tricks became mean-spirited acts, and by the World War I era had been replaced with vandalism and depredation.
On that infamous November morning in 1919, the good people of Anoka awoke to find wagons on rooftops, outhouses tipped over, windows soaped, cows roaming Main Street, cows in the town jail, a cow sleeping in the sheriff’s office, and a bull locked in a classroom for the night.
It was reported to have eaten three history and two algebra books. Clearly, the citizens of the town had had enough.
What to do? In some cities these outrages were so bad that people were arming themselves against these juvenile terrorists and even running them down with cars!
Wiser heads prevailed in Anoka, and Anoka civic leader, George Green, suggested holding a big community get-together to celebrate the holiday.
Backed by local civic organizations such as the Anoka Kiwanis Club and the Anoka Commercial Club, along with businessmen, teachers, and parents, a Halloween celebration was planned.
It would be a parade for costumed school children.
The plan worked. According to one newspaper report, “On that Halloween evening, October 1, 1920, local bands and drum corps, neighboring musical units, the Anoka Fire Department, Anoka Police Department, the Kiwanis Club, Commercial Club, Anoka National Guard, the Boy Scouts, and the school district all joined hands to make the evening a success.”
And, according to the plan, the boys and girls had such a good time they didn’t bother to commit the depredations as had been done for so many years.
The next year, 1921, was an even bigger success.
The festivities brought thousands of visitors to Anoka to enjoy the bands, dance, and parade — especially the parade.
The Nov. 2, 1921 issue of the Anoka County Union describes it thus: “Main Street was roped off from Bridge Square to Third Avenue and members of the fire department assisted the police.
“At various places powerful spotlights were set to illumine the line of march…
“Thousands thronged the walks and at 8:00 the parade, headed by the Punkinville Band, followed by the Boy Scouts, 64 strong, started.
“The Working Boys Band played with great zest.
“Next to them were 60 nurses from the asylum, and then came the floats.
A company of Brownies headed the thousand school children — and such costumes!
“There were real little devils in red and black, witches in black and in white, clowns, roly-poly pumpkins (one had a light in his stomach), dunces, goblins, animals grotesque, and all sorts of costumes.
“The Raze boy had a wagon drawn by his pet dog.
“The American Legion Drum Corps made a lot of noise, and every kid on the street had a horn, a bell, a squawker, or some noise-making device…”
With the exception of two interruptions during the war years of 1943 and 1944, the Anoka Halloween Celebration has continued and the parade has marched on.
It is believed that by virtue of a proclamation brought to Washington DC in 1937 by 12-year-old Harold Blair for delivery to state and national leaders, Anoka was officially recognized for being the first city in the U.S. to put on a community Halloween celebration for the youngsters and was officially named “The Halloween Capital of the World.”
Editor’s note: June Anderson is a member of the Anoka County Historical Society and a volunteer guide for their Ghost Tours of Anoka.