Homecoming, Harvest, and Halloween

Harvest Carnival was first held in the fall of 1913. A parade through downtown Stillwater and a carnival on campus were part of the early celebration.

Story by Roger Moore, Photos courtesy of Sheerar Museum Photo Collection

October means two things around Stillwater – Halloween and Homecoming. One has a history that dates back much longer than the community while the other is one of the traditions that has remained entrenched in both Stillwater and its university. Both have changed considerably.

Halloween dates back some 2,000 years with possible ties to the Celtic festival known as “Samhain,” marking the end of the harvest season of October 31. Most pagans believe it is a day where the living and the dead overlap and when the deceased manipulate crops and spread sickness. In order to appease the “evil spirits” people don masks and costumes in the hope that crops will remain untouched. All Saints Day, a Christian holiday, began in the seventh century. Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead,” can be traced to Aztec times. Halloween, like any other holiday, is based on ritual and commemorates particular events that are significant to a culture or community.

In the eighteenth century, costumed people began going door-to-door singing songs in exchange for food to celebrate Samhain. During the nineteenth century large amounts of Irish and Scottish emigrants came to the United States, including Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Immigrants also transport their culture, so it is easy to visualize early local farmers of Irish or Scottish descent observing old family customs every October.

By 1930, Halloween became a mainstream holiday in the U.S. with mass-produced costumes hitting department stores. The Depression years produced sporadic violence, vandalism, pranks, and Halloween mischief that, some argue, led to community-based “trick-or-treating” that included adults to chaperone their kids around neighborhoods going door-to-door. The 1940s slowed the holiday’s momentum due to the rationing of sugar during World War II. The baby boom and suburban living revitalized things quickly, however.

Stillwater’s agricultural history can be witnessed first-hand on the southeast side of town with Stillwater Milling Company. With its founding, people began heading to Stillwater from all directions for supplies of all kinds. In the fall of 1913, two decades after Stillwater’s founding, the first Harvest Carnival was held. It is easy to imagine costumed kids – and some parents – gathering for a small-town, county fair type atmosphere with some of those Irish family patriarchs explaining the real meaning of the harvest carnival. There were games, those selling their wares, and members of Oklahoma Agricultural & Mechanical College’s faculty to discuss anything and everything. In an Enlightenment sort of way, perhaps OAMC research added to the ritual. There was no football game in 1913 – that occurred seven years later.

The original gathering in October had little to do with the university and much more with the agricultural theme of the region. And with that agricultural theme came a holiday based on protecting crops and ensuring everything was in order to produce a good harvest. Research by OAMC faculty worked hand-in-hand with ensuring a good harvest, so the irony should not be lost in the true meaning of Halloween and the significance of Homecoming and its foundation in the Harvest Carnival of 1913.

OAMC’s first Homecoming celebration came in October of 1920 when an estimated 90 OAMC alumni returned to Stillwater for a dance and dinner, plus a football game. To welcome back alumni many of the sororities decorated their doorways. The first Homecoming Parade hit the streets in 1930; its path has also changed.

There was a time when Oklahoma high school bands, local merchants, local organizations and clubs, an eclectic collection of bicycles from Cooper’s, and an elaborate array of floats built by Oklahoma State fraternities and sororities, would line up at 12th and Main early on a Saturday morning in October. A left turn was made on 6th heading west, then a right on Washington Street. Another right on University and the parade ended a block back to the east at Hester. A long and winding parade route that brought out the community to set up shop in front of DuPree’s Sporting Goods or in front of the prime location of Winchell’s Donuts on 6th.

This year, Baylor University visits Stillwater for an October 14 football game. It will be the culmination of a weekend that will bring an estimated 40,000 people to town for the annual “Walkaround” where sororities and fraternities will do much more than decorate their doors to welcome back alumni. Weeks will be spent in preparation for a weekend that, although different in size, is similar in theme to the 1913 Harvest Carnival.

Less than two weeks later, on October 24, Stillwater will host its 27th Annual Halloween Festival. There will be food trucks, carnival games, and music downtown. Merchants will be open late to provide trick-or-treaters with goodies. Many of those same kids dressed as Batman, Wonder Woman, and everything creative will hit the streets all over town on any number of days following the 24th and knock, say “trick-or-treat” and receive assorted candies. They will also carve Jack O’Lanterns, another piece of history with an Irish foundation that has been transplanted to Stillwater throughout October.

Perhaps a few grandparents, while helping to determine which candy to eat first and carving pumpkins rather than the turnips of days gone by, will wax poetic about the significance of Halloween and Homecoming to Stillwater.