|The Zombie Pig, and Other Tales of Cabbage Stalk Night|
|By Joe Durwin, Special to iBerkshires|
06:05AM / Saturday, October 31, 2020
A North Adams Transcript headline from 1901
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It's a variant of a tradition known by other names around the country — Devil's Night, Mischief Night, Corn Night — practiced in select areas around the eastern United States, and particularly concentrated in a thin slice of rural New England: cabbage night, cabbage stump night, or cabbage stalk night.
This last variation of the name appears to be distinct to the Berkshires, North County in particular. Originally dating back to the before the mid-1800s, in a time when almost everyone grew some produce on their property, youths would run amok pulling up cabbages and hurling them at doors, in combination with various pranks and petty vandalisms.
"The 'young American' way of celebrating Hallowe'en is to devote the night to robbing gardens of cabbages, unhinging gates, and making a disturbance generally," opined the Berkshire County Eagle in 1873, noting that five young men had found themselves up on charges after being "especially offensive at Henry Wergler's where they dashed cabbage stalks through the windows and were very riotous."
"Stumps and leaves of this fragrant vegetable were plenty on sidewalks and dooryards," the Eagle noted following another robust cabbage night in Pittsfield three years later and, in 1892 explained, "All the pent up devilry, accumulated in a year's time, in the minds of a hundred boys, breaks forth on cabbage night in Dalton, and persons admiring safety stay in doors."
In early days, the practice was held concurrently with Hallowe'en on the last night of October, but as it transitioned into the 20th century it increasingly fell on Oct. 30, becoming its own tradition on the eve of All Hallow's Eve.
In local news archives, there are two main kinds of cabbage nights referenced: "mild in comparison to previous years" and "one of the worst in memory."
Even when it took place on the same night as Halloween, there was a clear distinction made between masquerade revelry and the more prankish activities that made up cabbage night. In addition to cabbage, other vegetables and eggs became popular ammunition, with other common hijinks included soaping or waxing windows, stealing gates and fence sections. Even in its early days, stones through windows and acts of arson were not unknown. Nonetheless, it was generally tolerated within established bounds, with periodic warnings from police chiefs that arrests would be made for more serious cases of destruction.
In 1918, as Berkshire towns were beginning to relax restrictions on gatherings as the fall wave of influenza pandemic lessened, officials permitted Halloween parties and cabbage stalk prowling but warned against pranking homes where there was still sickness.
It was partly as a way of moderating the mess of cabbage stalk night that formal town-sponsored celebrations of Halloween began to emerge. In 1922, Pittsfield introduced its first parade for Halloween, in part "to keep the youth from tearing up the town." Community center parties and door-to-door trick-or-treat followed, a gambit to indemnify one's home against these kinds of pranks. It was around this time that it began to be divided into a two-night celebration, with the mischief slated for Oct. 30 ... though in actual practice, these onslaughts rarely stayed confined to the first night.
By the late '30s and '40s, burgeoning police departments began to beef up their patrols at the end of October as pranking and related property damage increased steadily. In 1936, Adams Police Chief Edward Reid issued a stern warning in advance about their willingness to prosecute any property damage, resulting in one of the more tame cabbage stalk nights the town had seen in several years.
Mayhem was curbed during World War II, especially in Pittsfield where Superintendent Russell had students take an oath against mischief in support of the troops abroad. This reprieve, combined with an assertive slate of new Halloween programs and parade festivities rolled out under Parks Superintendent Jackson Perry, was credited with earning a lengthy stretch of low-incident years that was not always the case in North County.
In 1946, North Adams saw a particular wave of Oct. 30 destruction, with dozens of windows smashed, signs stolen, fences broken. A public works shed was pushed into the river, and on Union Street, a porch chair was found perched haphazardly at the top of a telephone pole. In Williamstown, cabbage stalk mayhem was also much beloved by the college population, who along with dashed vegetables and leaf fires would often flood the sidewalks with fire hoses. The latter provoked consternation in 1948, when a 15-year-old girl broke her leg slipping outside Morgan Hall.
The dual night celebration of Cabbage Stalk Night & Halloween was well entrenched in the Berkshires by this time, but sometimes — especially when it falls midweek — two nights just is not enough Halloween.
In 1957, a full week of mischief descended on Adams, kicking off with a pre-emptive barrage of cabbage stalks on Friend Street on Oct 28. Once more Chief Reid issued stern warnings, but to less avail: 35 serious complaints came in to police on Oct. 30, and untold lesser eggings.
In North Adams, Police Chief John Flaherty offered similar warnings. But windows were broken at Brayton School, two small fires set, streets road-blocked with felled trees and boards with nails. Multiple motorists reported stones and gravel thrown at their cars. The mayhem was in stark contrast with nearby Williamstown, which reported a quiet night that year.
The following night saw more roadblocks, more smashed windows and streetlights ... and the body of a dead pig on South Church Street.
"The pig, zombie-like, kept reappearing on the roadway, although police removed him several times," reported the Transcript.
Nocturnal activities tapered but didn't cease over the weekend, with false fire alarms and hurled objects persisting into the first few days of November. On Nov 1, the pig was followed up with a dead calf left at the monument on Main Street. Police found no marks on the animal, though it was believed to have not been dead long. Nov. 2 saw one injury when a woman on East Main Street tripped on a string that had been strung across her front door. On Sunday morning, Nov. 3, the pig — believed to be the same one from Thursday — somehow reappeared on the street. Once more the NAPD moved it off the road and contacted the board of health.
The year 1963 was another "worst in recent memory" year across the Berkshires. Pittsfield's extended honeymoon with parade revelry and low vandalism had ended, as evidenced in an Oct. 30 assault on Dawes School resulting in thousands in damages and six youths facing serious charges. Virtually every room of the Elm Street elementary school was damaged, and classes did not resume until Nov. 1. Two other schools and a dozen homes and businesses also saw broken windows, and several cars were spray-painted or moved.
In North Adams, throngs pelted cars and houses with a mix of eggs and rocks as "nine cruisers struggled to prevent a major outbreak of violence and injury." Patrolman Edward Lemanski was hospitalized after being struck on the head by a group of teens near River Street, while Auxiliary Officer Joseph Melito was pelted with eggs and thrown into some bushes after he tried to disperse a crowd of 50 amassed near Johnson School. By the end of the chaotic two-night period, dozens of teens had been detained, with a handful facing charges. One veteran officer called it the worst two nights he had experienced on the force.
In response to the rising toll of property damage of the 1960s observances, towns became even more vigilant. In Pittsfield, Civil Defense volunteers began stationing themselves at all city schools, and a similar tact was adopted in Cheshire.
From the Transcript in 1916.
Increasingly community sentiment encouraged parents to enforce having their older kids home by dark, though opinion remained divided on this. One 1969 exchange of letters to the editor of the Eagle over stolen jack-o'-lanterns illustrated the age-old debate, boiled down essentially to "mischief takes the fun out of Halloween" versus "whatever happened to cabbage night, and letting teens blow off steam?"
Most towns varied by the year. In 1971, Dalton Police Chief Robert Powell issued strong warnings about the uptick in town, whereas 1975 was considered an especially bad year for Lee. In '74, a two-day spree at area schools landed multiple Adams teens in court. Fire-setting became an increasingly common theme in the 1970s, particularly cabbage night barn-burning (a practice that had already been popular in nearby Pownal, Vt., since the 1950s). In '77, Pittsfield High School saw significant damage in a pre-Halloween fire incident. The following year, the North Adams Fire Department battled 19 different blazes on cabbage stalk night. The cancellations of trick-or-treat altogether in some local towns in the 1970s and early '80s (in Lenox, an 11-year moratorium) — in response to fears about malicious candy tampering — did nothing to slow cabbage night. If anything, it was linked with even more destruction.
"The cabbage night fires have thrown into silhouette a very serious problem in this area. Vandalism and theft have become astonishingly widespread," declared a Bennington (Vt.) Banner editorial in '77, after four more barns in Pownal were destroyed by fire. The North Adams Transcript echoed these sentiments in a 1981 editorial: "It has become increasingly clear over the past several years that a long, hard look should be taken at what is rather inaccurately called Cabbage Stalk Night ... it's time to call a halt."
In Becket, some felt that a longtime tradition of prankishly "decorating" the little triangular park at the corner of Main Street and Route 8 had even gotten out of hand by '81. "It was like the town dump had been moved to the center of town," said Town Clerk Karen Avalle. By the following year, they were considering a curfew.
Through the '80s, Cabbage Stalk Night in North Adams became a real dumpster fire ... or many different dumpster fires, at least a half-dozen such calls per year, mixed with more serious fires. At times, youths would lie in wait after setting one and proceed to pelt firefighters with eggs as they went to put it out.
Like Detroit's famed Devil's Night fires, overall reports of pre-Halloween vandalism and arson had begun to decline by the mid-80s, though notable instances still continued. In '85, some Bennington youths who smoke-bombed the Stewart's Ice Cream shop on Main Street found themselves chased by a customer who drew a chainsaw from his egged truck and started it up in pursuit. In '86, continued irascibility led the town of Egremont to finally demolish the 75-year-old Champion shrine in French Park; in '87 the Water Street cemetery in Great Barrington saw 29 stones smashed.
Perhaps the last of the truly destructive Cabbage Stalk Nights to strike North Adams came in 1989, as firefighters battled 13 major fires, the most severe of which gutted a house on State Street, and destroyed the Sunshine Camp for disabled children. "What happened last night wasn't Cabbage Stalk Night," said Mayor John Barrett III on Oct. 31, offering $500 for information leading to arrests.
Despite the severity of that year, the '90s continued the overall decline seen in the 1980s in serious damage, with local papers reporting quieter nights each year except '98, whose list of offenses seems mild compared to the lawlessness of past decades. As it had around the United States, the practice of mischief the night before Halloween became tamer, more reliant on egg and toilet papering activities.
By the 2000s, pre-Halloween hijinks still continued sporadically throughout the Berkshires — an abandoned house burned on Florida's Stryker Road in 2001, as did a vacant Pittsfield warehouse in 2004 — but the term Cabbage Stalk Night was less and less used. For years it had been partially kept alive by its frequent use in the Transcript — the Eagle rarely used the term in recent decades, and when it did it was invariably by a reporter who had spent time at the Transcript. By 2010, the last time "Cabbage Stalk Night" was mentioned in print, Transcript columnist Joe Bushika spoke of it as a faded tradition "that doesn't happen much anymore," nostalgically recalling it as a time when pumpkins and cabbages littered the roads, "but seldom was any real destruction done."
These days, it is becoming rare to find anyone under 35 who has even heard of Cabbage Stalk Night — like the use of cabbage from which it's derived, the name is fading into obscurity. A glimpse at any police blotter in late October, however, proves the practice of pre-Halloween devilry is by no means extinct.
This article is dedicated to longtime local newsman Glenn Drohan, whose many years of cabbage stalk coverage made this history possible.