When America was younger: Ladies wore hats, men sported spats and Halloween could be hard on the family buggy or wagon.
By the late 19th century, All Hallows Eve had become – all across the country — a night for playing tricks on neighbors. This was a breach of the social contract, of course, in an unsettled and unsettling country where neighbors trusted in, and depended on, neighbors for succor and survival.
One of the favorite capers was to “borrow” someone’s wagon and send it — driverless — down a hill. Or place it — by some mysterious method — in a remote spot, such as the top of a barn or house.
- In 1888, sneaky students at Beloit Academy, a prep school in Beloit, Wis., “attracted considerable attention,” the Weekly Wisconsin reported on Nov. 10. “A wagon loaded with wood was carried to the top of the college building and fastened there.”
- Halloween in Newton, Kan., in 1892 was a night of malarkey and mayhem. “On the steps of the First ward schoolhouse,” observed the local Daily Republican on Nov. 1, “was a delivery wagon, and on the roof of Fox Winne’s lumberyard was a spring wagon.” The latter buggy belonged to a local carriage company.
- Mischiefmakers in Logansport, Ind., tied an old wagon to a freight train on Oct. 31, 1893, the Pharos-Tribune reported. The prank “was discovered by one of the brakemen before the train had gone far and the wagon was sidetracked.”
- In an Oct. 29, 2000, Champaign, Ill., News-Gazette story, Tom Kacich recalled a story from the 1890s when a bunch of rapscallions dismantled a wagon — piece by piece — and “carried the parts up a stairway at an old school and rebuilt it in a room on the third floor.”
Taking wagons apart and rebuilding them was a recurring motif of mischief. Which leads us to our last wagon-prank tale that may restore some faith in the social contract.
The story — which takes place probably in the mid- to late 19th century — comes from a 1922 issue of The Youth’s Companion magazine. The writer’s grandfather, according to the yarn, was a farmer named Josey who occasionally carted his wheat some 160 miles to Philadelphia to sell.
For a Nov. 1 trip to the city, the farmer loaded his wagon — with 50 bags of wheat — and went to sleep in anticipation of a wee-hours departure. At 3 a.m. he was up; his wife rose, too, to make his breakfast. The farmer went to the barn to feed and harness his team of horses only to discover that his wagon had disappeared.
Josey knew it was probably a Halloween stunt. He spent hours looking all over his farm, but could not find it. Later in the morning, after the sun was up and it was too late to make the trek to Philadelphia, a neighbor rode up in his wagon — laughing all the way.
Josey explained about the missing wagon. “Don’t you know that wheat has gone up?” the neighbor said jovially. “You didn’t look high enough.”
Sure enough, Josey turned around and his wagon was on top of his barn. Using ropes and a lot of patience, “at least half a dozen vigorous young men had worked several hours to accomplish the task,” the writer wrote. “Everything was there down to the tar bucket.”
Knowing how to take a joke, Josey and his wife invited the whole town over in the afternoon to help get the wagon — and 50 sacks of wheat — down from the roof. There was a village-wide supper on the farm afterward.
“Early the next morning he started for Philadelphia,” the writer added, “and by arriving a day later than he otherwise would have done, got 15 cents more a bushel for his wheat. Few practical jokes end as well as that one ended.”