We’re the farmer’s scarecrows
We scare away the birds
We keep the farmer’s corn safe
Without any words
But when Halloween comes
We jump out of the ground
And scare the little boys and girls
When they come walking ‘round
— traditional children’s poem
By Stephen Knapp
For the Courier
The witching time of year is here, and smart folks will want to be on the lookout for that cast of questionable characters who seem to pop up (as if out of the ground!) every year just as nights are growing cold and dead leaves crackle under foot.
This year, the good town of Empire has once again made seasonal spook-spotting easy with its fifth annual Scarecrow Contest. Between now and Oct. 31, a creepy cruise along Empire’s main drag will yield enough fright and delight to satisfy the most discriminating Halloween palate.
“People around here really get into it,” says Bernie Hubner, who, with his wife, Peggy, owns the Lewis Sweet Shop right across the street from scarecrow central. “We have 27 scarecrows registered right now, and not all of them are from around here.”
That means Empire actually imports horror each Halloween, which may be why so many savvy scare-seekers mark Empire on their October calendars in blood-red ink.
“A lot of people driving through stop just to find out if we’re doing the scarecrow thing again,” Hubner says. “It’s pretty popular.”
And it’s a perfect run-up to Empire’s annual Fall Festival, happening this year on Oct. 23 at Town Hall just up the street from the sweet shop. Until then, anyone with a pencil and an opinion is invited to evaluate the phantasmic company of straw-stuffed oddities lining the weathered wooden fence along U.S. 40 and cast their vote for the one that best shivers their timbers.
“One of the winners last year was done up like Captain Jack from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ” says Hubner, holding a poster-board hall of fame displaying photos of the most successful scarecrows from Halloweens past. “Some are more or less traditional, but you get a lot of non-traditional stuff, too. There aren’t a lot of rules to this thing.”
That would explain how Red Rose — a tarted-up inflatable doll — captured the first year’s crown.
“Some people said, ‘It’s an inflatable doll! That’s just not right!’ But hey, it’s what people voted for.”
This season, the Lewis Sweet Shop’s entry is a short, hairy scarecrow brandishing a not-too-threatening scythe and a trick-or-treat bucket.
“It’s a tommyknocker,” Hubner explains. “A couple years ago we did a ‘Chocolate Moose,’ but we thought this would be a little more Halloween-ish.”
It is, and so is the tall drink of poison looming a few yards down the fence. “Blind Date” was created by Empire residents Alyce Vargo and Mike Spies, and it’s a haunting apparition wearing an itchy-looking knit brassiere and a look of tortured despair that will be familiar to anyone who’s been set up with a “super person” who turned out to be the Wicked Witch’s scarier sibling.
Scarecrow Contest ballots are available at every business in Empire, and voters can feel confident their preference will be tallied in something not unlike a democratic process.
“We used to have a sort of Chicago-style vote-early-vote-often thing going on, but now we ask people to just vote once,” Hubner says.
Votes must be cast by Oct. 22; winners will be announced at the Fall Festival the following day. First place nets $50, with $25 going to the runner-up, both purses payable in “Empire Bucks” which are legal tender only in their town of issue.
“This is that weird transition period between no-snow and snow, and it gives people something to do,” says Hubner. “More important, it gives people a reason to come to Empire. … No matter who wins the Scarecrow Contest, if it gets people to come here, we all win.”