New Orleans is often considered the most haunted city in America. It’s home to the famous haunted LaLaurie Mansion and—come October—is brimming with ghost tours, voodoo shops, and street parties. Salem, too, is known for being an eerie Hallow’s Eve destination. The historic stage of the Salem witch trials, this Massachusetts town offers ghost tours and a Halloween carnival in the fall.
These haunted cities have nothing on Anoka. Never heard of it? You’re not alone.
Anoka, Minnesota, is a town of fewer than 20,000 people about 20 miles north of Minneapolis. It’s a place for antique shopping on Main Street and canoeing on the lakes and rivers, and this little suburb dominates spooky celebrations.
During the month of October, Anoka is full of haunted houses and scarecrow competitions. A giant, blinking pumpkin sits on top of city hall. Anoka pulls out all the stops to live up to its proudest superlative: Halloween Capital of the World.
Anoka is believed to be the first city in the country to host a Halloween celebration. In 1920, the city threw a parade and bonfire—not to highlight a haunted history but because the town was getting trashed.
A century ago, Halloween was a day for kids to pull pranks around town, and the Minnesota suburb got hit with loose cows, tipped outhouses, and chickens and wheelbarrows on roofs every year.
The Anoka County Historical Society recently uncovered a clip from the November 4, 1914, Anoka County Union that illuminates the nature of some of these pranks: “Halloween was exceptionally quiet this year, and little real damage was done. Windows were soaped, fences torn down.”
As these stunts became more destructive, Anokans—led by civic leader George Green—brainstormed ways to divert the pranksters into some Halloween activities that were a little tamer.
And so, in 1920, the Anoka Halloween celebration was born, along with Anoka Halloween, Inc.—the committee responsible for throwing an annual October spectacle worthy of their name.
Anoka’s first Halloween celebration included a big parade, a bonfire, and lots of candy and popcorn for the kids. The tradition has continued every year since, only pausing in 1942 and 1943 during World War II. Over the decades, the festivities have evolved into a month-long party with three parades and more than 30 events ranging from a giant pumpkin weigh-off to Halloween wine tasting.
The near-century of celebrations has made for a rich Halloween history. The Anoka History Center Museum displays a collection of Anoka Halloween buttons and medallions dating back to 1940. The buttons were once used as a ticket to the Pumpkin Bowl—an annual Anoka High School football game dedicated to Halloween (like homecoming, but spookier). Now the button allows you entrance to the traditional medallion hunt and—even better—gets you discounts at local businesses during the month of October.
Other official Anoka Halloween swag includes mugs, notebooks, wineglasses, and a wide array of apparel. John Jost, vice president at Anoka Halloween, Inc., says the store gets international orders from collectors all over the world. Jost’s big project for the board is planning for 2020 Anoka Halloween. He’s writing a book to celebrate the 100-year anniversary. Already, the city has begun to celebrate its nearing centennial anniversary with a jack-o’-lantern roundabout that will grin year round.
In 1937 an Anoka boy named Harold Blair traveled to Washington, D.C. to petition Congress to officially designate Anoka the Halloween capital of the world. As the story goes, Congress did uphold Anoka’s claim with a proclamation, but Anoka County Historical Society’s archivist, Audra Hilse, says the paper trail to those events has been tough to track down, in part because of a fire in Anoka that destroyed much of Anoka Halloween’s early documents. Hilse also says something similar was done in the 1970s to reestablish Anoka’s claim. Either way, it’s a title this Minnesota town would be hard-pressed to relinquish.
This town is so Halloween crazy that the Halloween committee meets year-round to prepare for the big day. Anoka Halloween, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that has grown to throw 30-plus Halloween events in October. Committee members work as chairpeople for the season’s tasks and volunteer on one another’s projects to pull the whole thing off.
Between pet costume contests and bonfires, there really is something spooky for everyone in Anoka in October. The celebration is too big to contain in one parade, so there are three: the nighttime parade, a daytime parade for elementary-school children, and the Grand Day Parade the Saturday before Halloween. In the coming weeks, more than 30,000 people will show up for the big event. All in the name of Halloween.