Harrison Boulevard Still Haunting Boise

“You know about Halloween, right?”

Heather Schoolfield has lived with her family on historic Harrison Boulevard for five years. This was one of the first questions she was asked upon relocating there. “We were well-informed,” she laughs. “Everyone told us we’d have a busy Halloween. It would be horrible to move to this location and not know anything about it!”  

That’s exactly what happened to Scott Petersen, another current resident of the boulevard.  “We were blindsided on our first Halloween here,” he says. “I had no idea. We were so unprepared. The front lawn was completely trampled the next morning.” Since then, Petersen has learned a few survival tactics, such as cordoning off the perimeter of his lawn with caution tape. “The caution tape actually helped enhance our haunted house theme, too,” he adds. Petersen and his girlfriend have since decorated their house every Halloween, transforming the outside and inside of their home into the Emerald City of Oz last year. “Over time, we’ve figured out how to do everything more efficiently. For instance, how much candy we buy, where we buy it, how we distribute it- all of that has evolved over the past six years.”

Petersen hosts annual “B.Y.O.C.” Halloween parties, wherein a large bag of wrapped candy doubles as your admission ticket. Guests then take turns handing out nearly 3,000 assorted pieces of candy to an endless stream of miniature princesses, superheroes, and pirates who form a line that snakes down the sidewalk.  “We’ve had our family members make it to a party or two and they finally saw why we talk about Halloween so much, and why it’s such a big part of our lives here,” Petersen says. “Halloween on the boulevard is just something you have to see to believe.”

The earliest reported tales of trick-or-treating on Harrison Boulevard originate in the 1930s. Former residents recall a scene that sounds all too familiar- costumed children being dropped off in large groups to descend upon homeowners in search of treats. Doris Cruzen, who lived on the boulevard in 1929, said “Halloween was always very big. We would see truckloads; I mean trucks larger than pickups, drive up and stop. Out would come maybe 25 children from one truck.” Jane Connor, another former resident, agreed, “There are times when I think I must have given out 500 pieces of candy. This is a great street for the little kids to be turned loose on. Their parents would let them out of the car, and they would go all the way around the street.”

Harrison Boulevard was designed in 1892 to create a focus and point of interest in the North End that would rival its more sophisticated sister arterial street, Warm Springs Avenue. Formerly 17th Street, it was laid out to commemorate President Benjamin Harrison’s 1891 trip to Boise, and envisioned as a double street with a park-like strip down the middle, similar to Europe’s grandest avenues. As Harrison had signed legislation granting Idaho admittance to the Union in 1890, Boise thought it only appropriate to laud his visit with the sweeping and stylish boulevard north of State Street. McAuley Park anchors the south end of the road, while Hill Road intersects with the north. The boulevard’s residency grew, and beautiful Queen Anne, Colonial, Bungalow, and English Cottage-style homes popped up in the early 20th century. Street lamps were added to every intersection, and the median was constructed in 1916.

As Boise grew from a small town associated with the Oregon Trail to a bustling capital city, Harrison Boulevard’s distinction grew as well. Around the 1930s, Harrison Boulevard rivaled Warms Springs Avenue in being seen as “housing the rich”, boasting well-known residents such as the Simplots, former mayor and prominent businessman W.E. Pierce, and Governor William Davis. Entrepreneurs, merchants, engineers, and physicians comprised one-fourth of the boulevard’s occupants in 1927, efficiently contributing to the street’s emerging reputation as a symbol of “gentility, prosperity, and social status.” As the boulevard became a more prominent location for Boise’s social scene, it soon became the city’s sweet spot for trick-or-treating.

Traditionally, tricks and treats often went hand in hand, making the boulevard a prime centerpiece for pranks and public stunts. Local teenagers tied firecrackers to doorknobs, and left barricades made up of anything from park benches and trash cans, to tree branches and cement blocks, in the center of the boulevard. The pranks escalated on Halloween in 1955, provoking the next morning’s issue of the Idaho Statesman to describe it as the “wildest Halloween reported in Boise.” Witnesses said several hundred teenagers congregated on Harrison Boulevard between Ridenbaugh and Lemp where they lit fireworks, ignited leaves, threw eggs and vegetables at cars, and generally “yelled, milled around, and cursed.” Police spent two hours breaking up the crowd and calling parents to come fetch their children. When the fire department arrived on scene to help disperse the crowd, they finally resorted to spraying the pack with a fire hose. A few months later, reporters wrote that locals were referring to it as “the Halloween riot” (though the paper had merely dubbed it a “melee”) at neighborhood meetings. An increased police presence in the years following the incident prevented similar situations from escalating to the degree they did in 1955.

These days, Harrison Boulevard is known as one of the safest locations in Boise to take your kids trick-or-treating. Not only is it well-lit with crosswalks and wide sidewalks, but the Boise Police Department is always present to supervise, as well as distribute candy. Representatives from Boise’s Fire Department are happy to assist too, and allow costumed photo-ops with the truck.  Boise State University fraternity and sorority members even serve as volunteer crossing guards. Most of Harrison’s residents cannot remember a Halloween where there was an unpleasant experience to speak of. Although the boulevard may have been a draw for disorderly conduct in the past, that is hardly the case today.

Photo Credit: Boise Police Department

Parents may appreciate Harrison Boulevard for the obvious safety factor, but visitors of all ages from across the Boise Valley endure bumper-to-bumper traffic for the sheer spectacle of it all. And what a spectacle it is. No other street in Boise offers such a high concentration of elaborate Halloween displays in town. One house’s sizeable set of front steps is completely covered in 130 carved jack-o-lanterns. A nearby home opts for a decidedly more eerie tone, where a caged, hooded, skeleton hangs ominously from the porch. Numerous lawns are transformed into elaborate cemeteries where bony limbs stick out of the earth, as though their freshly buried owners are desperately trying to dig themselves out. While some displays are obviously more attention grabbing than others, such as the annual Zombie dance party on one house’s front lawn, even the more discrete décor contributes to the cohesive festive atmosphere.

Funnily enough, as extravagant as some houses’ decorations are, most are only on full display for Halloween night. It’s common for Harrison homeowners to wait until the week before or even the day of the holiday to decorate. If Halloween falls on a weekday, some residents take the day off work to set everything up. Scott Petersen says, “Christmas is a big deal on Harrison Boulevard too, but while those decorations might be up for a whole month to celebrate the holiday, most people here wait until the last minute to decorate for Halloween.” Peterson admits he doesn’t know why that seems to be the tradition, but agrees it definitely contributes to the pageantry that is Halloween on Harrison. “The house next door just sets up these giant inflatable pumpkins for the weeks leading up to Halloween, and then by October 31, their yard has been transformed into this massive graveyard. It’s really neat to see.”

Though some residents have voiced concerns that Halloween on Harrison has gotten too big, Heather Schoolfield says that her family has enjoyed every single Halloween they’ve spent on the boulevard. “It’s just fun. It’s a good time with the neighbors, with people coming in, and we love it.” She adds, “We don’t mean for it to get bigger every year, but you end up buying a few more things here and there. This year, our boys are dressing up as Star Wars characters, so we got a few things to go with that theme,” motioning to an inflatable three and half foot tall Yoda.

Harrison Boulevard is one of Boise’s most ennobled streets, steeped in history and traditions that even its more recent inhabitants appreciate and honor. Despite all the effort that goes into one night, Harrison residents like Scott Petersen find themselves looking forward to the event every year.  “My favorite part of the night is seeing all the families in their theme costumes. One year there were these parents who carried their young daughter around and she was a cupcake and they were the bakers. There’s one boy who visits us every year and he always dresses as a pirate. You recognize faces over the years and watch kids grow up. And they are always so appreciative, telling us they love what we did with the house.” He adds, “That’s why we love doing this. As much as we put into our Halloween, we get even more back from the community.”