30 October 2010

An Old Sleepy Holloween Tradition

For over a quarter century, the Chino Hills community of Sleepy Hollow within Carbon Canyon honored its namesake by hosting an annual Holloween tradition:  the ride of the Headless Horseman through the one-lane streets of the community. 

While most younger people only know of the Headless Horseman through Tim Burton's typically dark and strange film version from 1999, the origins come through a tale by a nearly-forgotten American, who was one of this country's first acclaimed novelists and fiction writers, Washington Irving (1783-1859). 

Irving's book, Tales of the Alhambra (1832), was the inspiration for the San Gabriel Valley town of that name when it was developed in the 1870s.  He was best known, however, for two short stories, "Rip Van Winkle," published in 1819 and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," which was adapted from a German folk tale and first appeared in print in an anthology Irving published under a pseudonym in 1820.

As for the community of Sleepy Hollow, it was subdivided by Cleve Purington in the 1920s as a place for owners to build cabins for weekend getaways and mainly remained as such until well after World War II.  By the mid-1960s, full-time residents comprised the vast majority of those who owned or rented in the community. 

About 1965, the Sleepy Hollow Women's Club began holding a recreation of the ride of the Headless Horseman.  Two decades later, on 26 October 1986, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy feature article on the tradition, quoting Sue Briney, whose husband and daughter still live in the community, as saying "I started organizing the ride in 1967 . . . Ichabod Crane would come riding through and the kids would yell as soon as they heard the horses.  Then it would be real quiet and they would hear the Headless Horseman coming after him."  The Horseman would then toss a pumpkin onto the street as the children squealed with delight. 

Other elements of the Hallow's Eve festivities would be a costume contest, trick-or-treating by pickup truck through the steep hilly streets and homes spaced far apart, as well as "haunted trails," in which, Mrs. Briney added, "the older children would set up some type of trail through the trees, with fake corpses and other gruesome things.  Then they'd take the little kids and lead them through the trail with flashlights."

This handpainted wooden sign, made in August 2008 by Sharon Anderson
in Tennessee, is used to decorate my home in Sleepy Hollow

When a family that owned the horses used at the event moved away, only one horse could be found and, consequently, Ichabod Crane was dropped from the roster and only the Headless Horseman made his frantic ride through Sleepy Hollow.  From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, Dee Hallock (now Nadeau), still a resident of the community, organized the event, before passing the planning on to another resident, Tupper Peterson, who was the coordinator up until the date of the article. 

One of those portraying the Headless Horseman, Mike McCormack, was quoted as saying "the first time I did the ride the costume slipped over my eyes so I couldn't see very well.  I was fumbling with the pumpkin because I was having trouble holding on to it and since I couldn't see where I was going.  I almost ran into the back of a van."  Dee Hallock remembered that one Headless Horseman used a candle in the pumpkin, which made the face glow ominously, "but what he didn't anticipate was the smoke from the candle going up in his face so that he had problems breathing."  McCormack solved the problem by using a flare and also inserting a stick in the pumpkin so he could easily hold onto and wave it on his wild ride.

Much of the festivities were held in the old community center that was joined to the volunteer Sleepy Hollow Firehouse, District 4, which sat on the site of the current community center built earlier in the 2000s.  Notably, Sue Briney's daughter, Linda, a long-time resident of the neighborhood, noted that "The Headless Horseman is one of the special things about this community.  I think that's why we kept the tradition going after we grew up."

Unfortunately, the annual event died out.  It has been said that one reason was that a later Headless Horseman had a little too much to drink before setting out on his ride, fell off his horse, and broke his leg, scaring the children in unanticipated ways.  In recent years, the Carbon Canyon Women's Club (the renamed club noted above) hosted Halloween events in the new community center that included games, crafts, a costume contest, and a visit from a fire engine from the local station.  Alas, that tradition has also been discontinued over the last two years.  There are, however, some residents who still are willing to pass out candy to the few smaller children (such as mine) who reside in Sleepy Hollow.

It sure would be great, though, if the chase of Ichabod Crane by the Headless Horseman could be brought back.  As Sleepy Hollow has changed from a quiet isolated rural island in a sea of suburbia that finds its shores increasingly eroded by the relentless march of "progress," it may, however, be too much to ask.

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