Halloween and Scarecrows

Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec
Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec

 

Happy Halloween or all Hollows Eve

Oct 31st – Some people like skeletons, other vampires; but for me the scarecrow is the essential halloween symbol.

The tall and skinny figure with a pumpkin for a head, maybe stuffed with some hay, strikes the right note of spooky and the fall harvest.

Walking past a scarecrow you never know if that looming creature may jump out at you.

And history backs up your unease, because at one time scarecrows were living creatures. Walking pass a farmers field could easily stir a sleeping scarecrow.

In pre-industrial Europe and North America, farmers would often place scarecrows in the middle of their modest fields.

To keep the birds away, farmers would hire either the very young or the very old to sit in the fields.
Children too young for other work could easily sit in the middle of a field and swing a wooden clapper to scare the crows.

Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec
Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec

The work was also ideal for the old. Nolonger to perform maunal labour, the aged worker could walk to the field and still keep an eye on the crops. The small compensation might might the difference between eating or starving the days before a social safety net.

So, walking past a scarecrow could easily provoke a reaction from a sleeping senior citizen or a extremely bored child, particularly at dusk.

Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec
Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec

There are also tales of the trouble these little scarecrows could cause if they dropped by your house asking for food or walk. Refusing to provide some small treat might result in mud being jammed into you key hole or the farm gates suddenly opening in the middle of the night.

The spooky nature of scarecrows should never be under estimated. So, that is why I like scarecrow. They provide the perfect balance of history and scariness

Signs and Omens – The Tale of Strange Lights

Binkley 1803 Cemetery, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec
Binkley 1803 Cemetery, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec

According to some folklore, strange lights can warn of approaching death.

There is a story that tells of a mother and son who were visiting relatives in the countryside. One evening, the mother and son were upstairs and glanced out the window to see two lights moving towards the farm house.

The lights were moving along a country lane and kept getting closer and closer.

Just as the lights appeared to be right outside the house, the light started to move away and then disappeared at a foot of a hill where the family cemetery was located.

The mother immediately went downstairs and the whole family searched house for a possible cause for the strange lights. Everything was moved, but no light or mirror could reproduce the effect.

A few days later, mother and son suddenly became ill.

And just as suddenly, they worsened and died.

Mother and son were buried in the family cemetery, just where the lights had disappeared.

Signs & Omens – The Tale of Sailing Ship Troy

Binkley 1803 Cemetery, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec
Binkley 1803 Cemetery, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec

In earlier times, people often believed that death could be foretold by signs or warnings. I don’t have any local tales, but here is one from New York State that I recently read in a book that was published in 1975.

Lake Champlain is a very stormy body of water, particularly late in the shipping season. There once was a sailing ship called the Troy and it was carrying a cargo of iron ore from Port Henry to Westport.

It was late November 1825, the winds suddenly picked up and the water became very rough. The ore shifted and the ship went under, taking all hands.

Typical for those earlier days, the crew was largely extended family and when the weather turned bad, family friends gathered on the pier hoping for the ship’s safe return.

At home, the mother and sisters sat around the fireplace; waiting with dry clothes and warm food for the boys.

Suddenly, women heard the men arriving home. There were sounds of front door opening and the stomping of the feet.

Everyone rushed to the door but no one was there.

The mother and daughters realized that this was a sign that the boys were not coming home.

A few days later, personal items from the crew began to appear on shore, but no bodies were ever found.

In the cemetery of Westport there is a stone maker that lists the missing crew members:

“Sacred to the Memory of Capt Jacob Halstead AE 25 years and his brother George Halstead AE 13 years Sons of John & Phebe Halstead who were lost together with three others the rest of the crew of the Schooner Troy in a gale of wind off Westport Nov 23, 1825”

The original story was published in the 1906 book entitled: History of Westport, Essex County by Caroline Royce.

As a side note; in 1999 a sonar scan of Lake Champlain located the Schooner Troy in about 300 feet of water. The ship is nearly intact and appears to be well-preserved. It is one of the few surviving examples of a sailing canal ship.

The Ghost Story of Lover’s Lane

Odds and Ends – an artist’s notebook

Oct 26th – In the spirit of Halloween, I have re-posted an edited version of last year’s short film: the Legend of Lover’s Lane. Based on the long standing legend from Ancaster (Ont) of what happen at the Hermitage Mansion in the early years of the 19th century.

Dying Can Be a Pickle

Binkley Hallow Graveyard, Hamilton (Ont) . Photo by @erskinec
Binkley Hallow 1854 Graveyard, Hamilton (Ont) . Photo by @erskinec

This week the Globe and Mail noted that Oct 21st was the anniversary of the death of Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Before the American Civil War embalming was rarely done and funerals had to be performed very quickly.

In the case of Lord Nelson, he died on a ship far from home and in a warm climate, what to do? There is a folktale that says they packed Lord Nelson and shipped him back to England in a keg of rum.

Unlike Lord Nelson, the challenge for some farm families was what do you do when it is the middle of winter and the ground is frozen solid?

I don’t have any local Hamilton stories, but according to one 19th century tale, when someone died in the winter, the body would be tied to a cooling board and hang in the barn until the spring thaw.

A cooling board is a panel of wood, like a wooden door, that was used to place the dead until the coffin was completed. Given the small size of 19th century homes and communities, sick beds would be needed for visitors staying over for the funeral.