What Makes This Minnesota Town the Halloween Capital of the World?

For nearly a century, Anoka has been celebrating this spooky holiday like no other city

For the past 99 years, Anoka, Minnesota, has been celebrating Halloween like no other city in the world. (Courtesy Halloween, Inc. )
smithsonian.com

No city in the country—or the world—does Halloween quite like Anoka, Minnesota. For almost a century, residents of the small Minnesota town located about 20 miles northwest of Minneapolis have been holding a community-wide celebration in honor of October 31, eventually earning the town of nearly 18,000 the title of Halloween Capital of the World.

It all began on November 1, 1919, the day after Halloween, when Anoka residents woke up to a prank of epic proportions at the hands of some of the local youth. As the sun rose, community members were greeted by wagons parked precariously on rooftops, overturned outhouses and cows roaming freely throughout downtown and inside the halls of the county jail. To prevent a similar debacle from happening the following year, civic leaders banded together to create a Halloween celebration that would not only prove entertaining for people of all ages, but would also curb any attempts at future hijinks.

“[Before the inaugural event], the pranks were getting bigger and bigger, with kids throwing chickens off of buildings,” says John Jost, who serves as chair of the celebration’s 100th anniversary, which will occur in 2020. “It had to stop. That was the purpose of the celebration, to divert pranksters and keep them busy.”

Fortunately, the plan worked, and every year since 1920 (save for 1942 and 1943 due to World War II), Anoka has been holding Halloween festivities that include a parade, loads of treats and minimal tricks. These days the annual event has increased into a month-long celebration that draws Halloween lovers from around Minnesota, the United States, and even the world, swelling the population to 60,000 throughout October. Most people hear about the celebration by word of mouth.

Anoka installed a pumpkin roundabout in 2017. (City of Anoka, Minnesota)

“It’s like a pebble being dropped into a pond, it’s really the people of Anoka who want to enjoy this hometown festival and then they bring along relatives and friends who tell others about it,” says Karen George, president of Halloween, Inc., the nonprofit organization responsible for executing Anoka’s Halloween celebration. “I recently met a younger couple who said that they love Halloween so much that they decided to move here.”

These days the Halloween celebration includes three parades rather than one, including the nighttime Light Up the Night Parade showcasing illuminated parade balloons that travel down Main Street followed by the Grand Day Parade, a three-hour spectacle that weaves through the town. Other events include a pumpkin carving contest, a bonfire, a house-decorating contest, trick-or-treating, a carnival and a pumpkin-smashing event to compost all those used pumpkins.

Kids prepare for the Big Parade of Little People. (Judy Griesedieck/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
Anoka schoolchildren participate in the Big Parade of Little People down East Main Street every year. (Judy Griesedieck/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
A mural advertises the town's coveted moniker. (Jared Boyer)
(Courtesy Halloween, Inc. )
Largest pumpkin contest (Courtesy Halloween, Inc. )

But even when Halloween isn’t in full swing, the other 11 months out of the year the town of Anoka still makes it vehemently clear that it’s the Halloween Capital of the World, with a traffic roundabout painted like a giant jack-o-lantern and a gift shop with a small museum that's open year round and dedicated to sharing the history of how Anoka earned its coveted moniker.

As the story goes, in 1937, a 12-year-old boy named Harold Blair traveled to Washington, D.C., after winning a nationwide paperboy competition. Wearing a handmade sweater emblazed with a “Halloween Capital” insignia, Blair met with then Minnesota representative Millard Rice and shared the town’s proclamation. Unfortunately, a fire in Anoka destroyed many of Anoka’s earliest documents about Halloween, so there’s no paper trail proving whether or not Congress confirmed the proclamation. However, a similar proclamation was made before Congress about 15 years ago making things official.

“In 2003, Mark Kennedy, one of our congressmen, declared on the congressional floor that Anoka is the Halloween Capital of the World,” says Jost. “So that’s how we got our official designation.”

Even with the official designation aside, Halloween has been a point of celebration for centuries and originates from Samhain, a holiday that marked the end of harvest by the Celtics, an ancient group of people who resided in the area that is now Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Britain and northern France. Over the years, the holiday, which involved people dressing up in disguises and carrying treats to ward off spirits, morphed into what we now know as Halloween.

But if the residents of Anoka have anything to say about it, no other place in the world does Halloween quite like they do.

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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