Vintage Halloween postcard of girl holding jack-o-lantern
Oral Sources of History

Never Underestimate the Power of Oral History – Halloween EditionšŸŽƒ

Oral history can be used to collect stories about Halloween traditions and experiences from people of all ages. We can interview our elders to learn about how they celebrated Halloween when they were young. We can also talk to our neighbors and friends to hear about their Halloween traditions.

Collecting oral histories about Halloween is a fun and rewarding way to connect with our families and our communities. It is also a great way to learn about our own heritage and the history of Halloween.

Halloween is a big deal in our neighborhood.

It’s not unusual to see Halloween decorations slowly making their appearances in September! The weather may still be warm, but it is possible to find skeletons sunbathing in kiddie pools in the front yards.

Moving into October, the decorating gets serious. There is currently a 12 foot skeleton across the street from me staring at my office window. He keeps me company. Hmmm….an ancestor, perhaps?

I no longer have children who trick or treat at home, but we do have lots of fun handing out treats – no tricks! – to the neighborhood children. Really, it’s a neighborhood/small town affair.  Treats for kids, adults and pets abound. 

Halloween Cookies and title reading Hallowenn and Your Ancestors
Pin for Future Reference!

But, being the family historian and genealogist that I am , I know holidays are a great time to gather stories about the family, community and social history events.

Gathering Social and Oral History Around Halloween

[Warning….I’m about to get up on my soap box.]

You know oral history is important to your family history research. I would go so far as to say oral history is crucial to our research.  

As researchers we learn vital clues  to family relationships, where family lived, and where they moved to. We can find concrete clues and information, and also clues to the family’s culture.

For example, I lost my great grandfather Abe White of Surry County, NC in the 1920 census record. His wife and three children were enumerated, but he was no where to be found! Not a trace of him was found, but I knew he was very much alive at that time.

Then I asked an older aunt about it. She readily shared she knew exactly where he was – working on building highways in Tennessee with her father. It turns out, in the off season of farming, he left home to earn money doing road construction. Without oral history, Abe would still be lost in 1920.

Beyond factual clues, oral history reveals aspects of an individual’s personality. It enriches the stories of their lives we can share with younger generations.

Never underestimate the power of oral history and a fun story to grab the younger generation’s attention. Let’s just say “flaming cow poop” is an attention getter! (More on that later.)

With the importance of oral history in mind, let talk Halloween!

[I’m stepping off of my soap box now. šŸ˜‰ ]

Vintage Halloween postcard of girl holding jack-o-lantern

Halloween Tricks? Or Treats? 

I do not just talk about oral history. I actively seek it out. I am not asking you to do something I do not do in my own research! I repeatedly interview family members from my parents to my distant cousins.

No one is too far away in distance or on the family tree not to have a piece of oral history pertaining to my ancestors. Additionally, even family members who are experiencing memory loss or suffering from dementia are included on my list. [Learn more about how to interview family members with memory loss.]

Let me show you what this looks like. For the stories below, I interviewed both of my parents. Their experiences of Halloween as young children differed quite a lot!

The Flaming Cow Poop (Yes, you read that right!)

black and white photo of a cow

Growing up in rural 1940’s  Halifax County, Virginia, Halloween was more about the tricks than the treats.  At least for the boys in the family.

Let’s find out what the young Talbott cousins might have been up to on Halloween.

The Talbott cousins grew up in rural southern Virginia where  the family was primarily a farming family.  They lived in the community of Cluster Springs, close to South Boston, Va.

On Halloween the boys would go out to the pasture and get a cow patty and place it in a grocery sack.  (That’s cow poop, just so we are clear.)

They would then place the sack of cow poop on an unsuspecting  person’s porch, light the sack on FIRE and knock on the door.  

Oh yes, and RUN.  The person would open their front door, see a grocery sack on fire…..and, well, stomp the fire out.

Use your imagination on how that went.

Do you want to get your children interested in family history?

You only need three words: Granddad & Cow Poop!

My adult children still laugh at this story. 

The Mysterious Rocking Chair

Front porch of rocking chairs

Those Talbott cousins did not stop at cow patty flambees. They had more tricks up their sleeves, too.

The cousins would make a dummy person out of things they found on the farm.  They could be quite creative with a pair of old overalls and a bunch of hay.

Most people in the area where they lived had front porches with a rocking chair or two. They would place the dummy in a rocking chair on someone’s front porch. They would then tie a rope around the rocking chair and hide off to the side of the porch.  

One person would ring the doorbell and run. When the door opened, one of the boys would pull the rope and rock the chair creating a spooky sight for the homeowner!

Disclaimer: I’ve been assured my father was not the ring leader in any of these tricks, but one of the younger boys following his older cousins.  At least that’s his story and he’s sticking to it!

Halloween Greetings Vintage Postcard

The Sweeter Side of Halloween – The Treats

Let’s move on to a family of girls.  Halloween looked a bit different, I can assure you.

Growing up outside of Greensboro, NC, my mother’s family was still in a fairly rural setting.   There were only about 4-5 houses of close neighbors and friends on their street.

All the children would dress up and trick or treat at each other’s houses in the more traditional way kids do today.

No real tricks were done.

candied apples

In this case, it was more about the treats.  

The mothers would bake really good treats for the kids – homemade cookies, candy apples – that sort of thing. No store-bought candy there. 

Since I know the women doing the baking, I know those were some fabulous treats. Every one of them was a fabulous cook in their own right. Treats for the kids was a fun way to showcase their skills.

Connecting Generations Through Halloween Stories

Oral history is fun. It connects generations. It facilitates the interest of younger generations in their families and provides a grounding effect as well.

For my children, flaming cow poop and mysterious rocking chairs provided a connection between my dad and my son. My son would ask for more stories from his grandfather’s youth. (I’m just glad we had no cow pastures near where we lived. I didn’t want him getting any ideas.)

My daughter wants to create some of those Halloween treats she heard about in her own kitchen. She’s particularly interested in culinary history and her own culinary heritage. She even started a blog about it – The Food Memory Project.

I realize in your search for your ancestors in the traditional genealogy records and in the genealogy databases, it’s easy to overlook collecting oral history. But as we work to grow your family tree, consider why you started in the first place. I bet it was to learn more about your family.

Who they were.

What motivated them to come to America.

Or move west.

Or pursue a career on stage.

Maybe you are even asking yourself if you are like one of your ancestors.

Seek out your family’s oral history. Ask your family members! You might just find a flaming cow poop story in your family!

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  • Cathy Kozij

    On Halloween, my cousins would dress up in costumes, go trick or treating, come back home, change into other costumes, then go back to the same houses to trick or treat again. They did this for years until they were too big to easily disguise themselves and their height.

  • Linda L Shorb

    The Ghost of the San Joaquin River by John Shorb
    When I was about 17 years old and just starting my senior year at Fresno High School, my friend Jim pulled me aside one day in the cafeteria. He asked me if I would like to help him out by portraying a ghost out at the San Joaquin River. It seems like he and another guy had been telling these two girls about the area being haunted and they were going to take them out there and see if they could run across the ghost. Well, it sounded like a fun something to do, so I agreed.
    Friday afternoon, I followed Jim home to get outfitted. He provided me with a sheet with a hole cut in the middle for my head to stick through, a length of chain to rattle, a lantern to be seen by, and of all things, he had a four-foot long broad sword for me to swing around. My goodness, that sure seemed like everything a self respecting ghost would need to go a haunting.
    So, that evening a bit before dusk I headed out to the river. It seems the area I was supposed to haunt was mostly large gravel deposits and small ponds. So, I set up my haunt where I thought I would have a pretty good chance of being seen. Finally, darkness fell and I sat there waiting to either see their flashlights or hear them walking through the area. Neither of those things happened, so periodically I would stand up, wave the sword around over my head and make the most bloodcurdling yell I could bring forth.
    Well, after about an hour and a half of no visible results, I decided I had fed enough mosquitoes, so I gathered all my ghastly paraphernalia and started making my way back to where I had parked my car.
    Along the way, I walked past a pond and there was a fellow in a 10ā€™ aluminum row boat, probably hunting for frogs. I figured that since I had not knowingly scared anyone that night, he was IT! So, I sat my lantern down in front of me, faced him, and waving the sword over my head, I gave out a well-practiced, eerie howl. Have you ever seen in old-time cartoons where one of the characters takes off in a row boat so fast that all that is in the water is the oars? Well, that guy was able to do just that. It was amazing. I am just lucky he didnā€™t have a pistol in his fishing box; otherwise a different tune might have finished up the night.
    When I got back to the parking area, I did see Jimā€™s car parked there. So, I got out a sheet of binder paper and left him a note placed under his windshield wiper.
    Sorry, I missed you tonight. Maybe I will see you again somewhere.
    And I signed it, The Ghost of the San Joaquin.
    The only real mystery of this whole thing is the fellow who was in the boat. I would love to hear the story he told about his encounter. I sure hope he didnā€™t suffer any permanent psychological distress.

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