Dayhoff: Recalling past Halloween seasons, from best pumpkin in Westminster to knives thrown at would-be sheriffs

It’s the Halloween season and for a celebration of the marriage of legends, history, imagination, and storytelling, there is no better holiday — especially in Carroll County.

As with many holidays, much of the history of Halloween has its roots in the practical. Hearkening back to the ancient origins of the observance, many communities have a fall harvest parade that over the years has become known as a Halloween parade.

One popular fall harvest crop in Carroll County are pumpkins. Historically, the Halloween jack-o'-lantern has its roots in the carving of a turnip. Several hundred years ago pumpkins were quite smaller than they are today. Early American settlers used a pumpkin because it was larger and easier to carve and more easily available than turnips.

The original purpose of carving a frightening face and placing fire inside the pumpkin was to frighten away evil spirits — banshees or “schnell geistes” from the spirit world.

My research indicates that no one seems to know where pumpkins originated. Although the fruit is grown in every continent in the world, except Antarctica, it is accepted that the earliest plants came from North America — or Mexico, to be exact. And yes, for those who like to debate the difference between a fruit and a vegetable, pumpkins are a fruit.

The earliest evidence of pumpkins, according to several sources, dates back to possibly as early as 7000 BC. They come in all sorts of colors besides the traditional orange of which we are familiar; and some varieties can grow to well over 1,000 pounds.

For folks, like me, who love pumpkin pie, you may be fascinated to know that, according to the University of Illinois Extension Service: “Native Americans dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats. They also roasted long strips of pumpkin on the open fire and ate them.

“The origin of pumpkin pie occurred when the colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and filled the insides with milk, spices, and honey. The pumpkin was then baked in hot ashes.”

A number of years ago, local historian Jay Graybeal wrote an article for the Historical Society for Carroll County about a “unique annual contest (that) was sponsored by Westminster furniture dealer Atlee W. Wampler, Sr., beginning in 1922.

“Mr. Wampler invited local residents to enter pumpkins which he displayed in his storefront window at 55 E. Main St. Judges examined and weighed the pumpkins and awarded cash prizes for the largest examples.

“The first contest was won by Joshua J. Hesson of Westminster for a pumpkin weighing 90 pounds. He received a $7.00 first prize…”

Graybeal pointed out that “Wampler's Pumpkin and Apple Contest continued for many years and became a popular local event. The contest benefited the winners, especially during the Depression, and also brought potential customers into Mr. Wampler's furniture store.”

And speaking of contests, in October 1946, Ray Yohn, a candidate for sheriff in Carroll County, had his qualifications for office tested by literally having knives thrown at him.

On October 11, 1946, the Democratic Advocate published an article, “Recommended for Sheriff,” which described the Democrat candidate for Sheriff showing his qualifications for the job.

“You got to have real stuff to face a knife situation at a county fair. Candidate Ray Yohn for Democratic sheriff was invited by a knife thrower at the Carroll County Fair, Taneytown last week; to have a cigar the sheriff was smoking to be amputated close to his mouth as an exhibition.

“Mr. Yohn accepted the invitation. He stood sideways at a distance with his cigar close to a wooden barrier. The first knife shaved the ashes from the cigar. The second cut the cigar in two, the knife sticking the board.

“In some way Wesley Mathias, the Republican candidate for sheriff was invited to perform the same act. But he refused to do so.

“The knife thrower learning that the two were opponents in the coming election remarked, ‘You should elect Mr. Yohn sheriff, who has the courage to perform his duty without fear,’ it is said.”

These days folks who disagree with elected officials don’t throw knives. Today, elected officials ought to count their blessings we no longer live in 1946 or Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In those days the public simply hung you or crushed you under a pile of rocks. Today, political opponents just humiliate you and raise doubts about your integrity.

Halloween and the tradition of storytelling in Carroll County, especially cops, courts, and crimes, murder and mayhem, are some of my favorite topics. Previous versions of segments of this yarn have been published by me in the past.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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