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Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village: 40 Years of History

October 23, 2020 Think THF
Transparent figure of Abraham Lincoln standing in room with table and dais

"Ghost of Abraham Lincoln" in Logan County Courthouse for Halloween in Greenfield Village, 1982 / THF146345

Our beloved Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village program is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It’s been a fascinating journey to have been involved from nearly the beginning, eventually leading the team that plans and produces this very complicated and detailed guest experience.

Throughout the entire history of the event, the true star of the show has been Greenfield Village after dark. I know of no better palette for our amazing creative team to have at its disposal to work magic year after year.

The year 2020 and its COVID-19 pandemic will be looked back on as a turning point for not only the Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village program, but for all of The Henry Ford. The need for a safe environment and the resources available have forced the team to take a fresh look at the event and view things from a very different perspective. We are excited and invigorated by the plan we have brought forth and we hope our guests are too.

The Beginnings of Halloween in Greenfield Village

The Greenfield Village Halloween program began as an experience shared through our Education Department’s catalogue of classes and courses. This new concept of a family-based, Halloween-themed experience was first developed as a scary wagon ride experience, with stops and treats at various buildings in Greenfield Village. There were other fun seasonal activities, including dunking for apples, a costume parade and contest, and refreshments in Lovett Hall. The wagon ride was carefully planned out and tapped into Village stories, going as far as having as having a staff member’s child on board as a designated kidnap victim--a sign of the different times that were the early 1980s.

Man and woman wearing historical clothing and facepaint hand candy to man and little boy
"Trick or Treat" at Wright Home in Greenfield Village, October 1982 / THF146356

This program was presented on an ambitious scale. It was offered one night only and served a remarkably large audience. It was wildly popular and showed what future possibilities and demand lay ahead for the Halloween season. (You can read more about this very first Greenfield Village Halloween program here.)

A series of events led to the next phase of the Greenfield Village Halloween program. The Tylenol poisoning scare in the fall of 1982 changed people’s view of the safety of trick-or-treating. This, combined with new staff and reorganized Village Programs and Special Events departments, brought forth the novel idea of opening Greenfield Village at night as a safe place for trick-or-treating. Thus, the foundation for Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village was born: the basic format of the program we have used until now.

This first Village trick-or-treat Halloween program drew an unexpectedly huge crowd of over 5,000 people. No control measures for timed or paced entry times were put in place and the event was open to the public. As expected, the supply of treats ran out quickly and drastic measures had to be put in place to try and keep pace. I remember working at the first treat stop, the Loranger Gristmill. We gave out handfuls of loose candy corn (a nice thematic connection to the gristmill). I remember it being a very chaotic experience and the porch of the gristmill being coated in smashed candy corn, which could not be seen—only felt—under my feet. In the light of the following day, I was amazed to see single pieces of candy corn that had been pressed out to the size of my hand, still retaining their original shape and color!

Crowd of adults and children, many in costume, outside brick house
"Trick or Treat" at Heinz House in Greenfield Village, October 1982 / THF146374

Many lessons were learned that opening weekend. Moving forward, Halloween in Greenfield Village became a members-only event and entry times were established to slow and control the flow.

Developing the Program in the 1980s and 1990s

Halloween would remain a members-only event for the next 20 years. The first few years, Halloween only took place for one weekend in October. This would continue through the 1980s. By the early 1990s, the still members-only program would expand to two weekends and eventually three. During this time, staff were allotted a certain amount of free tickets, but were required to show up on a set day and time and stand in a very long line to get their tickets. Member tickets for the limited number of program days typically sold out very quickly.

In the first era of the program, there was a lot of emphasis put on the treats and their thematic connection to the Greenfield Village sites from which they would be given out. Different treats were picked out each year.

Orange page with text
The inside of the brochure for 1983’s “Family Halloween in Greenfield Village” lists the thematic connections for each building treat stop. / THF146311

Connecting the trick-or-treat path were a variety of Halloween-themed vignettes or interactions, associated with historical events and characters with a nod to scary stories of the past. The effects were low-tech and, in some cases, took inspiration from the emerging haunted house industry. First seen in the 1970s, these haunted houses were grassroots amateur efforts, often sponsored and produced by local Jaycees, Elks, and other fraternal organizations as fund raisers. They relied on cheap scare tactics that involved being jumped out at, grabbed, and sometimes gory scenes. For years, we used some of these very same techniques. The Ackley Covered Bridge was notorious for this.

Person in a gorilla costume in front of adults and children, many in costume, in a wooden covered bridge
"Gorilla" on Ackley Covered Bridge during Halloween in Greenfield Village, October 1982 / THF146372

When it came to infrastructure, the Greenfield Village of the 1980s and 1990s basically resembled the Greenfield Village of 1929. There were very few, if any, streetlights and limited access to power to add additional lighting. Until the restoration of 2003, Halloween in Greenfield Village was very dark. Because of this, the jack-o’-lantern pumpkin path played an important role in lighting the way through the experience. A continuous thread to today’s program is the large number of hand-carved and candlelit jack-o’-lanterns that line the path—though now, they serve more to create ambience and atmosphere. Over 1,000 pumpkins are now hand-carved each week to achieve the continuous path.

Four women carve pumpkins on tables covered in newspaper
Volunteers Carving Pumpkins for Family Halloween Jamboree in Greenfield Village, October 1981 / THF146327

Throughout the 1990s, the Family Halloween program, still a members-only event, continued to grow in popularity and had become a yearly tradition for many. Creative collaborations between the Special Events, Village Programs, and AV teams continued to improve the experience, and serious work and experimentations began with lighting and visual effects. A huge breakthrough was the discovery that Tim and Tom, the Firestone Farm black Percheron horses were decent riding horses. It was not long before the Headless Horseman made his debut in the front fields of Firestone Farm. He was soon joined by Ichabod Crane and a Halloween in Greenfield Village favorite was born.

By 2001, though the sophistication and fit and finish of Halloween in Greenfield Village had evolved dramatically from its early years, there was still great potential for growth. Previously, costuming had mainly been reworked or cast-off bits and pieces from the period clothing inventory, décor was minimal, and aside from the hundreds of pumpkins on the jack-o’-lantern path, the main emphasis remained on treats.

The New Millennium Brings a Turning Point to the Program

Three men with pipes in muddy trench; construction equipment and buildings nearby
Workers Laying Conduit in Greenfield Village during Infrastructure Restoration, January 2003 / THF133585

In 2002, the big news around Greenfield Village was the impending massive infrastructure restoration that would begin to take place in the fall. The Village would close at the end of September and not reopen until the following June. Halloween would take a hiatus that year as the huge project gained steam. This would be a turning point and a newly imagined program soon emerged, keeping in step with the newly imagined Greenfield Village.

By the summer of 2003, a cross-functional team began planning the work. The team very quickly established a back story that would guide what the new Halloween would and would not be. The shock and gore, now so prevalent in haunted houses, was removed from the mix. Instead, there was a move toward a family-friendly experience that would rely on the power of Greenfield Village after dark and scary and adventure-based stories that fuel the imagination and Halloween spirit.

Another important inspiration was Halloween party guides, published from the early 1900s through the 1950s, in the collections of The Henry Ford. These handbooks gave endless advice on how to decorate, what games to play, what food to prepare and serve, and a whole host of other miscellaneous tips on how to throw the best Halloween party. Among the most useful and inspirational were the series of yearly Bogie Books, published by the Dennison paper and party goods company from 1912 through 1935. These pamphlets were filled with illustrations, some in color, that featured the huge array of crepe paper and other party products produced by the Dennison Manufacturing Company. Elaborate costumes and party décor were shown—along with the list of Dennison products one would need to replicate the awe-inspiring ideas featured. The colors, textures, and techniques guided our teams in both costuming and decorating throughout the Village.

Two children look at a black pumpkin house with Halloween symbols nearby and text
Dennison's Bogie Book: Suggestions for Halloween & Thanksgiving, circa 1925 / THF96746

Trick-or-treating would remain the main vehicle for moving guests through the experience on a set path, but the look and feel of the treat stations would begin to change dramatically. The Period Clothing Studio became very involved and began to design a spectacular series of costumes to bring the gothic, fairytale, and adventure storybook characters to life—with a nod to costumes of the 1910s and 1920s. By 2005, these characters would become the treat station hosts, with their own stages and stage lighting. Other favorite characters, like the Woman in White, the Dancing Skeletons, the live scarecrow, and, of course, the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane, made triumphant returns with new costumes.

Two women work at a large table filled with fabric bolts and sewing notions; elaborate costumes hang in the background
Costume Studio Preparing for Halloween in Greenfield Village, October 2005 / THF12490

Another significant change at this point was the shift from Hallowe’en being a members-only event to a public event. Members still had first-pick when ticket sales opened, as they do now, but after a certain date, the public was invited to purchase tickets. As the popularity of the event continued to grow, so did attendance capacities.

The creative work to improve costumes, set designs, and theatrical lighting continued. Through the 2010s, staged theatrical performances of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and other fun, but dark fairytales, such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” were added to the mix. To set up the live Headless Horseman experience, Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was also performed. Along with the dramatic presentations, live Halloween-themed musical performances featuring a vampire trio, the Potion Sisters, and a musical pirate review rounded out the offerings. To top it off, the Top Hat Side Show became a fixture on Washington Boulevard, anchoring the 1920s carnival theme in that area.

Man in black pants and hat and white tank top points from a stage, with lighted "Top Hat Side Show" sign behind him
The Top Hat Side Show performing at Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village for the first time in 2015. (Photo by KMS Photography)

By 2019, the Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village experience had hit its full stride and welcomed a record number of guests. There were now several different ways to experience the program with the addition of evening dining opportunities, including the children-themed “Fairytale Feast” and the 1850s Eagle Tavern Harvest Supper.

Rethinking Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village in 2020

Sign with text
Signage outside the main entrance of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in March 2020, announcing the closure of our venues due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl)

Planning for the 2020 Hallowe’en program was well underway when the world as we knew it came to a screeching halt—and along with it, the entire summer calendar of Greenfield Village special events. As we cautiously reopened the Village and Museum over the Fourth of July weekend, The Henry Ford continued to learn and understand how safety measures should work, what the scale of program offerings needed to be, and what the future might bring. By the end of the summer, it was clear that we could consider a Halloween program in October. We knew it would need to be reimagined and presented in a very different way in order to comply with safety measures while at the same time allowing our guests to have a fun and enjoyable experience.

Based on decades of experience in planning and producing large scale public events, the Hallowe’en planning team took a fresh look at the program. It was immediately apparent that the entire concept of lining up for treats would have to be eliminated. Without the need for a set prescribed route, new possibilities opened, and the Holiday Nights model of enjoying the evening at one’s own pace and experiencing program elements in any order became the logical approach. Greatly reduced attendance capacities and timed entry would ensure a safe experience. Unfortunately, we were not able to offer our evening dining experiences this year, but happily, many familiar and favorite characters and experiences made a return.

Woman in witch costume in front of a locomotive and crowd of people
A witch and the Hallowe’en Express welcome guests to Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village in 2020. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)

A very exciting addition for 2020 is the Hallowe’en Express, a brand-new Halloween-themed train ride that makes a round trip excursion from the “Brimstone” Station at the front of the Village. Guests encounter all sorts of sights and sounds along the way. The presence of a live steam locomotive in the Village, with an eerie whistle created just for this occasion, adds an entirely new dimension to the overall experience for our guests.

Over the past 40 years, Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village has steadily grown and evolved. There have been many turning points in its long history, and 2020 will rank among the most significant. New beginnings can often be viewed as painful endings, but the Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village planning team is fully embracing this new beginning and is very excited to share the path we have taken.


Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village and Curator of Historic Structures & Landscapes at The Henry Ford.

COVID 19 impact, holidays, Hallowe'en in Greenfield Village, Halloween, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village, events, by Jim Johnson, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

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