RUTLAND, Vt. -- It's a warm night in early October, and two men at Fabian Earth Moving, a construction company in West Rutland, are dismantling a manure spreader. The humble piece of farm machinery is headed for a glamorous future: On Oct. 31 it will grace a 45-foot-long float themed ``Cowboys and Cowgirls" that will be vying for a trophy at the 47th annual Rutland Halloween Parade.
No prize money is at stake, just bragging rights, but the employees of Fabian Earth Moving, who have created prize-winning floats for the parade since 1994, put their hearts and souls into the effort. Before they are through, the flatbed of an 18-wheeler will be transformed into a working farm, complete with barn, animals, and of course the manure spreader, the whole scene animated, lighted, and entertaining the crowd with country music and a human cast of 48.
``It's a performance," says Marcy Galligan, who spends an entire year creating costumes for the float.
Why all this effort for a Halloween parade?
Over the past 47 years, the parade has taken on a life and traditions of its own. This year it is expected to draw close to 90 entrants and attract 12,000 to 15,000 spectators, who stand six to eight deep along the 1.2-mile-long route that threads through downtown . It's like Mardi Gras in October, with candy being tossed instead of beads. Local officials claim it is the nation's largest -- and longest running -- parade on All Hallows ' Eve. No one has bothered to try to substantiate this claim, however. They're probably having too much fun.
``For as long as I can remember, it's always been an important part of the community," EJay Bishop says. Bishop, 46, grew up here and is superintendent of the Rutland Recreation and Parks Department, which has organized the parade since its debut. ``For whatever reason, Rutlanders have gravitated toward the Halloween holiday. Even people who don't like Halloween love the parade. It's a tradition. It's cool to do," Bishop says.
No one remembers exactly who conceived of the parade back in 1960, when it consisted of a bunch of costumed schoolchildren walking down Center Street to the tunes played by two local high school marching bands. Newspaper accounts credit John Cioffredi, who was recreation department superintendent .
But Bishop says Tom Fagan, a local comic book fan, had a hand in it. He was friends with many comic book authors and artists, most of whom hailed from New York . Fagan persuaded some of them to take part in the Rutland Halloween Parade in comic book character costumes. In 1965, the local newspaper reported that the Joker, Plastic Man, and Dr. Strange were roaming the streets of Rutland, along with Batman (presumably Fagan, but like Bruce Wayne, the Caped Crusader wouldn't divulge his identity). More comic book heroes appeared every year, and in the 1970s the parade was featured in the text and art of several comic books.
Although Fagan is no longer involved with the parade -- and neither are the comic book artists -- it has maintained its momentum over the decades. For many local businesses, schools, clubs, and other groups, the parade is the focal point of fall.
The West Rutland School band, about 40 students from a school of 500 in grades kindergarten through 12, prepares as if it were marching in the Tournament of Roses Parade. ``The parade is the biggest deal," band director Kate Cromer says from her office, a room decorated with ``Best Costumed Marching Band" pennants and trophies.
Cromer picks the music, then the costumes over the summer, and the band and color guard begin practicing the tunes and the choreographed marching moves the day school opens in August. One year, everyone dressed as characters from the movie ``Shrek," green faces and all. Last year, the theme was ``The Scorcerer's Apprentice," which featured waving broomsticks while everyone marched in lock-step. Cromer won't divulge this year's theme.
Then there's the eerie pulsating beat of Drum Journeys of Earth, a percussion group that dances in creepy skeleton jumpsuits. Inspired by Cirque du Soleil and the Bread-and-Puppet Theater, the 70-plus members of Drum Journeys of Earth and dancers from a local studio writhe like ghouls possessed while beating drums and carrying 12-foot-tall puppets.
``I find it wonderfully amusing that Rutland, which I see as quite conservative, puts its whole heart into [the Halloween Parade]," says Gary Meitrott, director and founder of the percussion group. ``It's a ritual of celebration. Our little town in Vermont has decided that we want to celebrate this time of year."
Besides the bands, the floats bring the parade to life. The parade has its share of simple, handmade floats, with Magic Marker-colored maple leaves hanging from hay wagons and convertibles carrying waving, slightly embarrassed Pumpkin Princesses. But at least a dozen floats take some serious engineering to build. One year, a city bus was completely covered to look like the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter movies. Another year, a 5-foot-tall rotating eagle was surrounded by patriotic-looking characters.
``If people who [make] the floats didn't embrace it, the parade wouldn't be what it is," says Cindi Wight, Rutland's recreation director.
When it comes to building floats, it's hard to beat Fabian Earth Moving. Much like a character from the TV show ``Junkyard Wars," John Center, who runs Fabian with his wife, Chris, forages for whatever is needed to create the floats. Over the summer, he found the manure spreader abandoned in a ditch. Last year, he happened upon four large satellite dishes -- the kind that E.T. could use to phone home -- to create a float entitled ``Out of This World."
Center and his crew -- family, friends , and employees -- fastened the satellite dishes together to make two flying saucers that sat atop the flatbed, which Center purchased several years ago solely for use as a parade float. Chris Center's brother, Ed Fabian, pulls the float each year with a 1957 B81 Mack truck (the same antique truck he used in 1994 to drive the national Christmas tree from Vermont to Washington, D.C.
With hydraulics on the legs to make the saucers move, blinking lights glowing from within, music blasting from concert-sized speakers, and everyone dressed in alien masks and metallic green capes, the float made the crowd go wild -- prompting spontaneous applause and dancing in the streets. It won the ``Most Original" trophy, displayed proudly with Fabian's other parade trophies in a cabinet near the company office.
``When we first started, we were taking second place," John Center says. ``Well, second place is first loser. I had to figure out how to conquer this, so I started talking to people making [winning] floats and getting ideas. Some secrets are: It's got to be big. The music has to relate to the crowd. It has to be lit. And you have to have glitz."
What manure spreaders have to do with glitz remains to be seen. But rain or shine, all trick-or-treating will cease in Rutland at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 31, and the floats will start their engines. For the next two hours, Halloween takes to the streets. It's not Fat Tuesday, but it might as well be.
Contact Peggy Shinn, a freelance writer in Rutland, Vt., at firstname.lastname@example.org.