Reflections on Paducah’s Autumnal World of Wonder
“Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination. We’ll begin with a spin traveling in the world of my creation. What we’ll see will defy explanation.”
It’s just before 6 PM in the waning moments of the final sunset of October. A tangerine glow leisurely ambles down the historic Paducah boulevard known as Jefferson Street, bathing each home in a rich, warm hue. A slight chill drifts in the air. The breeze is a music staff, punctuated with various notes—a laugh here, and oh wow! there, and plenty of oohs and aahs.
An hour earlier, there were but faint signs of life—in the distance, a figure or two, making short jaunts along the sidewalk. Now, the street and walkways are awash in fanciful characters of all varieties. There are pirates, princesses, cowboys, characters from Frozen, and superheroes galore. There are the cute and cuddly—baby lions and pink kitty cats. Then there are the more ominous—Frankenstein’s monster and a wolfman. All march in a parade of laughter and wonderment, all caught up in a world of fascination that exists for just a twinkling of time.
The crowds have come to be a part of the zenith of all Halloween activities—trick-or-treating. Many of the homes have been decorated. Some have been transformed into other-worldly vignettes. It has all grown, over the years, into a legendary, must-do activity for Paducah’s kiddos.
Dale Perry, whom we’ve dubbed as the mayor of Halloween on Jefferson Street, may have inadvertently kicked it all off when he moved to the neighborhood 23 years ago. “We did like everybody else did,” says Dale, “turned on the porch light, had a sackful of candy, and handed it out to about 20 or 30 kids.” Then Dale said his wife Donna’s love for decorating took over. They began with Halloween decorations on the house and porch. Soon, it spilled out into the yard. And since they lived on the corner of one of Paducah’s most recognizable intersections (21st and Jefferson), the community took notice. “The more we decorated, the more trick-or-treaters we got,” adds Dale. “And the more trick-or-treaters we got, the more we decorated. Then neighbors got to decorating, wanting to get in on it, too.”
Dale and Donna changed the theme yearly, their yard turning into an immersive, walk-through experience for each kid before they collected their candy. “She started with skeletons, pirates, stuff like that,” says Dale. “Then came the fog machines.” Then things got more specialized. There was Nightmare on Jefferson Street. Dracula’s castle appeared in the yard one fall. There was Marie Laveau in a Louisiana Swamp. And last year, it was a western theme with a skeleton-horse-drawn wagon. “One of best we had was General Malpractice,” adds Dale. “That was a mad scientist/doctor’s office.” As the years went by, the number of trick-or-treaters climbed from 20 or 30 to hundreds then to thousands.
Kristin and John Williams, in coming to Jefferson Street, didn’t know what to expect. “We moved in 2006, and we had no idea,” says Kristin. “We didn’t have kids who were trick-or-treaters, and we had lived in Calvert City. A few weeks before Halloween, Greg Waldrop, who lived down the street, came to the door with a bag of candy. He asked, ‘Did anyone tell you about Jefferson Street Halloween? You’re going to need a lot of candy.’ So that first year, I bought what I thought was a lot of candy, four or five times what I had bought in Calvert City. And we ran out in 20 minutes. I ran to Kroger and got as much as I could. It was probably gross stuff like circus peanuts. We tried to slow it down, giving every kid one little piece.”
The following year, the Williams adopted the same protocol as many other residents of Jefferson Street. “We invited all of our friends, we made chili, and asked them to bring candy,” adds Kristin. The phenomenon of trick-or-treating thus spurred annual fall parties. Friends and family gather to celebrate, and they share the joys of greeting kiddos on porches and in yards. “There’s something about giving out that amount of candy to a large volume of kids,” says John. “We’ve had, over the years, Paducah celebrities, politicians, CEOs—everybody—all on that front porch. When you take a twenty-minute stint in that kind of intensity, it’s exhausting, but it’s exhilarating. These kids look at you, and you’re the bomb.”
The Williams adopted the use of a trough. And the kids’ eyes boggle when they walk up on the porch and they behold the sight of a trough full to the brim with candy. The Williams also mix in a few of what Kristin calls unnecessary plastic items—things like spider rings and fangs, classic Halloween throwbacks. They give a small handful to every kid, which totals around 12,000 to 15,000 total pieces. “I have a hard cutoff at 8 PM on handing it out,” says Kristin. John laughs. “That means,” he says, “if a kid comes by at 7:45, and we have a lot left, they’ll walk away happy.”
“We also give a premium for our favorite costumes,” says Kristin. “If a kid shows up as Peyton Manning, they leave with a full bag.” John uses a hand tally counter to keep track of the number of kids. The count has ranged from 1,800 to 4,400. Those are trick-or-treaters alone, not counting parents and those who wander out to view the celebration.
Those numbers presented challenges beyond building a candy stock. It became near impossible for traffic to navigate safely through the neighborhood. A group met with then City Manager Jim Zumwalt who agreed to block off a portion of the street for the safety of participants, which the city has done for many years now.
“It’s always an amazing sight,” says Kristin, “and we all feel better that people can trick-or-treat and be safe. The city has been a huge help in that. We have to remember this is not a planned event. It’s 100% organic. There are no meetings. It just happens.”
John and Kristin, like Dale and Donna, have become cornerstones of the Halloween on Jefferson Street experience. For John, their participation was never in doubt. “I wanted us to become part of the hospitality of Paducah and Jefferson Street,” he says. “This is a rare, Normal Rockwell moment. You have people from all corners of our regional community. You have parents, walking with their children down the street, and holding their hands. They walk up to a doorstep and tell the kids to say trick-or-treat and to say thank you. In all of this, there’s a connection of community that you don’t get anywhere else or at any other time.”
“We’ve watched kids grow up here,” says Kristin. “There are kids who have come to Jefferson every Halloween of their lives.”
“And we’ve seen it for about 20 years now,” adds Dale. “We have adults showing up who tell us they were little the first time they came through. Now they are bringing their children. I wouldn’t take a thing for it. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
At the end of the evening, the candy storehouses having been depleted, the last of the little ghouls and goblins make their way through streetlight spotlights toward home. There, they gleefully sort through bags and plastic pumpkins bursting with sweet treats while parents admonish their intake, warning of belly-aches as those same moms and dads sneak a piece or two. The kiddos will drift to sleep, visions of those fanciful worlds swirling around their imaginations. If they are lucky, it will become a part of a yearly tradition—one they may introduce to their children as new generations of Halloween revelers continue to create an autumnal Rockwellian world, if for only one night.