Some scarecrows greet shoppers at store entrances. Others smile from stakes on people’s lawns – or sit slightly slumped over on bales of straw or in wheelbarrows.
Scarecrows can be scary, but more often than not they pack plenty of personality into their humanlike frames. While some are store-bought, others are stuffed, dressed and adorned by hand – their faces fashioned to show any number of expressions.
And, more and more, they’re decorating neighborhoods and business districts – posing on porch chairs, swinging from street posts.
Clarence Hollow held a scarecrow contest as part of its monthlong Scarecrow Festival, with prizes awarded in several categories last Saturday. But it’s not too late to see the entrants. More than 50 scarecrows designed by people in the community will be displayed until the end of the month along Main Street – from Clarence Town Park right through the Hollow.
In the Village of Hamburg, Scouts and other youth groups raised money for their organizations by creatively dressing up scarecrows in front of 27 business sponsors. Voting ends Tuesday; forms and maps are available at Main Street Ice Cream, 35 Main St., and Monroe’s Place, 182 Lake St.
Also ongoing: The Niagara River Region Scarecrows on display until the end of the month along the main streets of Lewiston, Youngstown, Ransomville and Sanborn. This, too, was a contest. Gowanda (with online polling at www.gowanda-ny.com), Grand Island and other communities have planned scarecrow-themed contests or events as well this year or in seasons past.
While today’s decorative scarecrows may resemble a storybook character, hairstylist, banker or diva, their predecessors date way, way back.
“What we normally think of as a scarecrow is a relatively modern creation, going back only a few hundred years and fairly well documented. Much harder to uncover is the origin of the scarecrow concept, evident even in primitive people’s earliest efforts to thwart crop-eating birds and animals, and often deeply rooted in superstition,” notes horticulture writer Felder Rushing in his 1998 book “Scarecrows: Making harvest figures and other yard folks” (Storey Books, $19.95).
Rushing – the man who proclaimed “Scarecrows always have bad hair days” – explains there was a time when farmers did not yet understand what motivated birds and other wildlife to destroy their crops. Instead, they often attributed the successes and failures in their fields to “unknown gods and unseen spirits.” Farmers – in an attempt to please the good ones and thwart the evil – followed various practices, including setting up “symbols” in their fields.
“Scarecrows eventually became a practical extension of this homage,” writes Rushing.
While some still are used to guard fields around the world, scarecrows evolved into decorative symbols of the harvest season as farmers began using mechanical and other techniques to protect their crops.
Things to crow about
Some other interesting scarecrow notes:
• One early crop guardian was Priapus, son of the Greek god Dionysus and goddess Aphrodite. Farmers would carve statues to look like him.
• At certain times and in various cultures, children served as living scarecrows to protect ripening crops. They would beat drums, rattle homemade “clappers” or employ some other noisy technique.
• By the late 1600s, British colonists were crafting human figure scarecrows dressed in old clothes with pumpkins or gourds as heads, Rushing writes. By the mid-1800s, American scarecrows became both decorative and practical.
• Scarecrows have appeared in countless books and films. They’re a favorite character in children’s stories. Shakespeare mentioned them. Stephen King had his “stuffy guys.” “Scarecrow” was the code name for the spy character in the 1980s television series “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” starring Bruce Boxleitner and Kate Jackson.
And, of course, there’s the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” played by Ray Bolger – the most memorable scarecrow of them all.