Raisanen, I have run two carnivals so now it is your turn.” So said my Junior High Student Council co-advisor and field trip taking buddy Bruce Johanson back in October of 1980. I am not totally sure what makes Finlanders sign up for the long haul on every project that they get involved with, but I didn’t get to pass along this annual event until I had the privilege of wrangling 35 of them. Current JH Student Council Advisor Emily Carpenter was groomed for the job the for a couple of years after she arrived in Ontonagon, so this annual community service event will continue into the future. On the cusp of this year’s 40th Anniversary of the JHSC Halloween Carnival, this would be a good time to review the history of the event.
Over the long and illustrious history of the Ontonagon School District and the current era of the Ontonagon Area Schools as we know it, there have been other organizations that have held similar fundraisers. The only other group I have knowledge of is the Girl’s Athletic Association that ran a version of the carnival in the years before my arrival in Ontonagon (1975-76). During the 1979-80 school year, I was back at NMU finishing up my Master’s Degree in Geography when Johanson resurrected the then dormant carnival idea. In a moment of frustration, the JH Principal at the time had made some comments about the community viewing our seventh and eighth grade student body as ‘a bunch of punks’. As the discussion went on, he challenged Johanson to come up with some sort of community service activity that would help the public see our students in a different light. The light bulb in Johanson’s head went off when he remembered the GAA carnivals of the past and the first JHSC sponsored Carnival was held on Halloween Night of 1979.
Upon my return to the district in the fall of 1980, Bruce informed me that we needed to get to work on the ‘carnival’. He explained the history of the event and gave me a quick break down of what games had been used the first year and how he had delegated the various jobs to the JHSC.
On the day of the event, we spent time after school setting up in the hallways and gym at the old JH/Elementary building on Greenland Road. It was all new to me so I did a little of this and a little of that, not knowing that the torch was going to be passed as soon as the clean up was done.
In those first two years, we had the student council members make posters, order the prizes, and run the games. They decided to hold a Halloween Costume Contest to be judged halfway through the event. We made money on the deal, but the two negative things I heard were a) some of the prizes where ‘cheap’ and b) it was far too hot in the gym for those who wore their costumes to the carnival. Tickets were ten cents a piece and games cost two or three tickets to play, eliminating the need for the volunteers running the games to handle money. All the money changed hands at the ticket table and the concession stand. The other highlight of the first two years was the Cake Walk that was populated with cakes brought in by JH parents. A cake was ‘won’ by landing on the right chair and having that number drawn from a hat. Musical chairs without a missing chair and with a sweet reward! The carnival was, as we have always advertised it, ‘old fashioned Halloween fun.”
When Bruce passed the baton to me after that second carnival, I began planning the third one almost immediately (a practice that would repeat itself year after year). Asking for ideas from anyone and everyone who had ever attended or helped put on a church bizarre or community event, we began making a list of new games we would bring into the mix. “Bean Bag” kept coming up so I found a piece of ¾ inch plywood and asked custodian LeRoy Rogers if he could cut three round holes resembling eyes and a big mouth. When LeRoy finished this task, some black and orange paint turned it into a giant Pumpkin Toss board that is still in use today (the oldest game and only hold over from those first three carnivals besides the Cake Walk). The next year, it was Jerry Stork’s turn to cut a full circle and a semi-circle from a much larger board that would become the Soccer Kick game we still use. By the time we moved up to the current K-12 building in the fall of 1984, I was smart enough to ask art teacher Sherrie McCabe to do the honors of painting a hockey goalie on the Hockey Shot game board. We held over games that worked, replaced others that didn’t, and tried to have at least one new offering each year to keep things fresh.
Not all of the games we tried worked. Bruce put one of the kids at the back door of the old gym with a big sign that said “Come and see the Egress, only one ticket” – a joke that meant they stepped out the door and learned the ‘Egress’ was basically the exit. The kid looked great in his straw hat and cane, just like an old time carnival barker, but he got a little over enthusiastic with the first couple of ‘dupes’ (sorry, I mean ‘customers’) – he would show them out the door, close it behind them, and then not let them back in. It was probably good that the first very angry woman who got locked out ran into Bruce when she steamed back in the front door of the school with every intent of revisiting her tormenter at the ‘Egress’. School buildings still have many ‘egresses’, but we never charged to see or use them again.
Golf happy Ontonagon should have loved the putting game. We first used a homemade putting surface made out of indoor/outdoor carpeting and a raised platform with the hole cut in it, and then a commercially made putting green with a raised foam pad with a hole for the green. We even turned the library into a four hole mini golf course for a time. Ontonagon certainly won their share of golf titles over the years, but the golf games eventually went away as they just didn’t attract many customers. That old carnival staple, bursting balloons with darts was used for a number of years, but it always made me extremely nervous to have kids running a game involving sharp objects being tossed in their direction. We tried rubber tipped darts for Baseball Darts for a while but interest in that game also faded over time. The game of Velcro Ball (a version of the old toss and catch game with handheld plastic pads covered with velcro to snag the tennis balls) also didn’t last long. The problem? The darn velcro pads kept falling apart. It was a great game for the backyard, not so much for a carnival. We eventually had much better luck with our homemade Ladder Ball game.
The crowds seemed to get bigger every year so we made a major expansion one year, setting up some of the ball toss type of games in the gym to go along with the games in the cafetorium. More games, of course, meant we needed more workers and then we had twice as much area to clean up. This experiment only lasted one year. As the school population declined in the 1990s, the JHSC was having a hard time finding enough volunteers to run the whole carnival. The logical solution was to farm out some of the auxiliary services so other groups could also earn a bit of income for their own projects. The band ran the concession for a number of years and lately, that task has been handled by the Athletic Boosters. The Prom Committee took over the Spookhouse and it has become one of those ‘rights of passage’ for the Junior class who are perpetually seeking funds for the prom. Even though it isn’t a huge money maker for them, Betsy Guilbault and her charges always do a great job and they have a good time running it. Other groups have taken their turn with the Spookhouse over the years. The late Dana Brookins had her drama kids run the Spookhouse a couple of years. One memorable year, they took the concept of the movie The Blair Witch and set up the school woods trail as their ‘Haunted Forest’. It was a bit wet that Halloween and I know the custodians were not real happy with the trail of mud that followed the satisfied customers back into the school, but the spooky Witch Trail was the talk of the school for many weeks. While splitting the pie more ways diminished the JHSC’s income from this event, the fact that it had become kind of a ‘cottage industry’ that supports more groups has made it more appealing. We repeat the mantra, “As long as we break even, it is a good event.”
Various Swamis and Soothe Sayers graced the carnival over the years. Where these mysterious Seers came from, one could never really tell, but they always seemed to attract a crowd. Crystal balls, candles, mysterious sounds and custom read fortunes were spun over many years. Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, they Swamis vanished, never to return. The Cake Walk, however, has remained alive and well. We almost managed to kill it one year when we decided to have some fun and make it kind of like the old Ace of Cakes show and judge the entries. It turns out people like to make fancy cakes but very few feel the need to make it a competition: that year we had some nice cakes, but by far the smallest number of cakes were donated to the carnival that year. We haven’t made that mistake again. Both the quality and quantity of cakes donated have remained impressive since that time.
One of my personal favorite Carnival events is the annual Button Contest. In the late 1980s, the JHSC picked up a button maker to use for special events. One of the first ideas was to conduct a contest where every student who competed could, after the judging, buy their button entries at cost for a quarter. The winners got their buttons made for free plus a dollar’s worth of the Carnival game tickets. It has always amazed me how creative kids can be with a canvas that is only 2 ¼ inches in diameter.
The carnival has always been held on Halloween night, in part because it gives the little ghoulies and goblins something to do after Trick or Treats is over. Whether it is a weeknight or a weekend, we have always held the carnival on Halloween. There were two years when the carnival was in jeopardy of not taking place. The first happened when some vandals broke into the school and sprayed fire extinguisher foam all over the halls. School had to be canceled for the day and when I arrived to assess whether or not it would affect the carnival, the principal asked, “Can you still get setup and hold the carnival tonight?” He wanted to make sure that the message got out that we were still open for business. It actually worked to our advantage because we got the student council to come in just after noon and we had a couple extra hours to set things up.
The second instance actually did force us to cancel the carnival, the one and only time that we didn’t run the event. It was one of those odd years when we had a wave of illness invade the school forcing the district to take a block of three days off to thoroughly sanitize the building and to break the chain of infection had that spread through the school. I got many inquiries (some of them angry) as to, “Why did the (Health Department, School Board, Principal, Superintendent – you can pick your own party to blame here) make you cancel the carnival?” Most were surprised when I told them it was my call, but not one of them disagreed with the explanation. I told them, “We just cancelled school for three days to break the chain of illness that spread through the school. Would it make sense to end that three day break by bringing a large group of kids and community members together in a confined space?” We missed the carnival that year, but common sense said that is what the situation required us to do.
Now that I am retired, I will still volunteer to make a cake for the Cake Walk and offer to sell tickets at the door. If you come to this year’s carnival, take a look around and remind yourself that the kids that are running the games at the 40th Annual Halloween Carnival are carrying on a tradition that has been around at least three times longer than they have been alive. Some of the staff involved were the kids running the games back in the day. All in all, it is still one the OASD’s most visible community service events hosted by the JH students and it is still an evening of “Old Fashioned Halloween Fun” for kids of all ages!
Top Piece Video: Hope Carnival #40 does as CCR commands and Put(s) as Spell on You