31 October 2009

Sleepy Holloween and the Scary Future of Carbon Canyon

One of the most enjoyable aspects of living in Sleepy Hollow is the sense of community that exists for many of the people who reside in the neighborhood, a sense that knowing your neighbors is generally more pronounced in the area than in most other places.

For example, events held at the Sleepy Hollow Community Center have included children-focused activities, such as a Christmas puppet show and a Halloween party, sponsored by the Carbon Canyon Women's Club, an institution that dates back to the 1960s.

Now, it appears these recent traditions are phasing out, because the Halloween party is not being held this year and it is likely the Christmas event will also fade out.

This is too bad, because in this era of disjointedness, and by that it is meant that people are simply not joining and belonging to organizations as they once were, that sense of community is eroded. In a place like Sleepy Hollow, which has been especially known for that identification among its residents, it means that the general sameness and isolation that tends to mark suburbia is making its inroads and eroding the identity that makes the community unique and attractive to those who still believe in the power of community.

Well, for some years starting in the 1960s and through the 1980s, there was another tradition that developed in Sleepy Hollow during the Halloween holiday, one that occasionally is talked about in terms of revival but has yet to happen. This was the holding of the famous ride of the Headless Horseman from a short story that people once read called The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.

Irving published the story in 1820 as part of a collection of tales called The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The tale takes place in Tarrytown, New York, specifically in a locale in the town called Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod Crane, a schoolmaster, is in love with Katrina van Tassel, who, however, is also wooed by Abraham (Brom Bones) van Brunt, a town dandy who wants to fight Crane for the hand of Katrina, but, because Ichabod shrinks from physical confrontation, resorts to playing practical jokes.

Among the local legends in Tarrytown (changed in 1997 to Sleepy Hollow) was one that concerned a Hessian (German) soldier, who had been killed during the Revolutionary War (Hessians were employed as mercenaries during that conflict) and rode on horseback each night in the area searching for the head that had been dislodged from his body courtesy of a cannonball.

Because Ichabod is known in town for his fascination with magic and witchcraft, Brom Bones conceives of an idea to rid him of his adversary in the contest for the fair Katrina. Mr van Tassel, a wealthy farmer (hence one of the attractions offered by his daughter), throws a party at his Sleepy Hollow residence, at which ghost stories are bandied about by the guests. Meantime, Ichabod brings himself to ask for Katrina's hand in marriage, but is rejected. As he leaves the party, both dejected by his failure and filled with with the stories told at the party, his level of nervousness on the ride home is noticeably elevated.

Finally, ahead in the darkness he sees a shadowy figure approaching and it appears to be a headless man with what appears to be a head on the pommel of the saddle. Convinced it is the legendary figure of which he'd heard of in his short stay in Tarrytown, Ichabod rides away convulsed in fear and awe. Chased by the fearsome rider, Crane's last recollection is of the creature lifting the awful head to throw at him before he is hit by the projectile, and knocked unconscious from his steed.

The next morning, Crane has disappeared from Tarrytown, never to be seen again. People find his hat, a bundle of his possessions and a smashed pumpkin lying on the road he had been riding on and, while some suspect Brom Bones had conceived another practical joke, others conclude the legendary Headless Horsemen had made away with the unfortunate Ichabod Crane, who forever would be linked to the legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Our own little community is, of course, in a hollow at the lowest point of Carbon Canyon and is (certainly was more in the past) "sleepy." So, what better place to hold a reenactment of the famed ride of the headless horseman of Irving's story?

Consequently, in about 1965, the Sleepy Hollow Women's Club (as the current Carbon Canyon organization was then known) began the yearly tradition, along with a haunted trail, in which fake corpses and other scary components were placed in a forested area within the community for kids to walk through. A Sleepy Hollow family that owned horses would loan two: one for the Ichabod Crane rider who would pass first by the gathering of children and adults and then one for the dreaded Headless Horseman following just behind. By the early 1970s, however, the horse-owning family left and the ride died out.

It was revived, however, in 1976 and kept going for most of the next decade or more. The festivities, held at the old volunteer fire house and community center that is now the site of the modern Community Center, included, as with the more recent Halloween parties mentioned above, a costume contest with prizes paid for by donations placed in a can at Party House Liquor, the community's sole business, now known as Canyon Liquor. After the costume contest was over, someone would yell "He's coming!" and everyone would run out of the building to see the Headless Horseman ride by and throw a pumpkin out onto Rosemary Lane.

Of course, the ride down the fairly steep hill toward the gathering didn't come without its risks. One year, a rider had his costume slip down over his eyes obstructing his view so that he almost ran into a parked car. Another had a lit candle in the pumpkin that caused so much smoke that he had trouble breathing. Finally, the tradition ended when the last rider fell off his horse and broke both wrists. It had been suggested that maybe the Headless Horseman had, in this instance, lost his head to alcohol rather than a cannonball!

As noted earlier, there has been intermittent talk of reviving the Headless Horseman's ride through Sleepy Hollow, but to no avail. With the ending of the recently-held Halloween party at the Community Center, it appears that, at least for now, the children (and adults) of the neighborhood will have no commemoration at all of the Halloween holiday.

This is really too bad, because there is no better display of the sense of community that Sleepy Hollow has historically maintained than events such as these.

Much of the information about the Headless Horseman's ride comes from a well-written article by Marilyn Pitts, "Town Loses Its Head Over Horseman on Halloween," Los Angeles Times, 26 October 1986. In it she notes that Sleepy Hollow was "perched above the Carbon Canyon Highway between the oil derricks of Brea and the fast-encroaching housing developments of Chino Hills, [and] the town offers its residents [then about 300] the pleasures of quieter times." In another passage, Pitts noted that "the community exudes the small-town ambiance that has been lost by other towns in the pell-mell crush of Southern California's urban expansion," was "occupied by an eclectic mix of people ranging from a neurosurgeon to artists to retired couples living on Social Security," and that "crime in Sleepy Hollow is virtually nonexistent, according to residents" because neighbors watched out for each other.

Now, just about a quarter-century later, as at least 200 more homes are approved for the Chino Hills side of Carbon Canyon, much of what Pitts wrote about is on the verge of being lost forever. It isn't just the Women's Club, or the neoghborhood events, it's the encroachment of suburbia, the increased traffic, the loss of open space and ambiance. Whatever the stated benefits of development, Carbon Canyon's unique setting is being transformed and cannot be reclaimed. It appears that the end of the Halloween party and other events are a microcosm of a bigger picture, in which the identity of Sleepy Hollow and the broader Carbon Canyon area is being lost to the anonymity, sameness, and "big box chain store" character (if it can even be called that) embodied in Pitts' phrase "the pell-mell crush of Southern California's urban expansion."

To make full use of the holiday metaphor, the treat of living in Carbon Canyon is that there is still enough of the "country" atmosphere separating it from the densely-populated areas around it, but the trick is that this condition is being compromised by more approved housing projects and other incursions.

The scary part is what the future of Carbon Canyon might be: the "Headless Horseman" of rampant, unreasonable development chasing out the Ichabod Cranes of our Canyon communities.


Zaphod said...

I could spend a lot of time writing about the Holloween parties held in the Sleepy Hollow, but I will forbear. The adults in the Canyon planned the parties in the 1950s in an attempt to tire the kids out before midnight. In this they were spectacularly unsuccessful. The Canyon boys' favorite trick was to wait until everyone was asleep (about 2:45 AM and then ring the church bell until the local constable would start his motor cycle at the top of the hill. We would ring it until he was about 100 yards from the bottom of the road and then we would slip into the creek. We would wait until his motor cycle was shut off when he went back to his house, wait another 20 minutes, and then ring the bell again until he was again near the bottom. We were a nervy and an unnerving bunch of boys.

By the way, my mother was one of the founders of the Women's club, which I think began about 1956.

Zaphod said...

PS: You probably already know this, but the Purrington family built what is now known as the Party Store. Back in the old days it was, of course, "Ichabod's Cafe".