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  • Writer's pictureJ. Basil Dannebohm

'The Ellinwood Caper' and the spirit of nostalgic hometown Halloween memories

J. Basil Dannebohm

Not too long ago, while perusing a local bookstore, I noticed a collection of macabre literature brought out just in time for All Hallows Eve. I stumbled upon a book entitled "Haunted Heartland.” Perhaps you can imagine my surprise when I found a chapter named, “The Ellinwood Caper,” a ghost story documenting an experience that supposedly happened in my hometown, Ellinwood, Kansas.

In fact, there are a few rather captivating ghost stories from back home. It's said that if you drive along the gravel roads just south of town at night, you just might encounter a ghostly bride. She's alleged to have been stood up by her bridegroom at a train depot that was relocated at some point to a local farm. Heartbroken, she remains there to this day. Then there's the supernatural happenings said to take place below the surface in the tunnels surrounding the Wolf Hotel. Those have gained international attention. I remember once when I was hosting a journalist from Washington DC, I arranged for him to stay at the hotel. Late that night, we decided to venture downstairs to see if all the ghost stories were true. Perhaps it was adrenaline, mixed with one bourbon too many, but that night two grown men were scared senseless by the noises we heard in those dark subterranean corridors.

Paging through Haunted Heartland and reading the Ellinwood Caper managed to summon a spirit of my childhood Halloween memories that were tucked away somewhere in the shadows of my mind.

Rural communities have changed a lot over the years. Ellinwood is no exception. Though unlike some small towns, Ellinwood's main street isn't a graveyard of abandoned buildings thanks to some very dedicated community advocates. While I'm many miles away from the place I used to call home, just last week I thoroughly enjoyed a candle I ordered from an Ellinwood candlemaker -- pumpkin scented, of course.

A tradition that still remains to this day is one wherein the elementary school children wear their costumes to school and take part in a sort of makeshift parade down Main Street, stopping at each local merchant for a sweet treat. When I was a child, I remember how excited I was to don my California Raisin costume and march blissfully into Waxy's Cafe, Snell’s Pharmacy, Gannaway Hardware, Gifts of the Garden, and the People’s State Bank. By the end of the parade, my empty shopping bag from Rocky's Grocery Store was overflowing with an abundance of candy.

And that was only round one.

By nightfall, the porch lights and the eyes of both the young and young at heart were set ablaze as everyone made their way around town gathering goodies. Like most small towns, it was common knowledge which neighborhoods the kids liked to hit first. Before the costume parade, students would huddle up at their desks and strategize their plans for the evening, discussing which houses gave out the best stuff. Mary Rollins always had a great treat basket with full-sized candy bars. It went without saying that Dr. Law's house would be a pleasant stop. Of course, every child who stopped at Genie Steffan’s house was bound to get a delicious homemade popcorn ball. For me, the evening always culminated with a stop at the home of one of Ellinwood’s most cheerful residents, Evelyn Stegman. I’m told that just down the street from Miss. Stegman, my grandparents always offered great treats, but by the time I got there all the good stuff was always snatched up leaving me with only peanut butter flavored taffy wrapped in black and orange wax paper.

Main Street, Ellinwood, Kansas

Foregoing candy for something more spine-tingling, the older kids in town would generally line up outside the Menges Fireworks Warehouse waiting for their chance to make their way through a Haunted House sponsored by the Jaycees. After the kids had their fun, the adults would often gather at Froggies for a few beers, reminiscing on the Halloweens of their childhood. Then, when it was time to call it a day, Dirty Denny would roll up the sidewalks and everybody in town, the young and old alike, would settle in after yet another memorable small-town holiday.

There were a few exceptions, of course. Sometimes winter would come early and give us one of those notorious Midwest blizzards. When that happened, Halloween had to be postponed for a few days, but it was no less special and memorable.

It's been said that next to Christmas, Halloween is the most magical holiday of the year for children.

My hometown provided All Hallows Eve memories that one would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. I confess, I had my fair share of "Ellinwood Capers," a few of which happened on Halloween. I would not trade those memories for anything in the world. That book I found in the bookstore offered only a short account of what makes my hometown unique and special. My memories alone could write an entire book.

Who knows? Maybe someday I will.

For now, I'll spend Halloween here in the Commonwealth passing out candy to a new generation of trick-or-treaters with hope that someday they, too, will be haunted by fond memories of the Halloweens of yesteryear.


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