Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Halloween history: Student government once sponsored big, nonviolent festivities

[media-credit name=’JAKE NAUGHTON/Herald file photo’ align=’alignnone’ width=’648′]Halloween_JN[/media-credit]Popularly described as rowdy crowds, broken storefront windows and tear gas, State Street partygoers are largely unaware of the long history of Halloween in Madison.

Most University of Wisconsin students do not know how the party started or the fact that it lasted through the late 1980s without tear gas.

Madison’s infamous Halloween party began in 1977 when a mere 5,000 people flooded State Street and started a large bonfire.


In 1980, the Wisconsin Student Association, UW’s student government at the time, sponsored the party by setting up beer gardens and hosting other entertainment.

“We had a good group of people and we pulled off Halloween,” Terence Gilles, former WSA member said. “There wasn’t any real violence.”

Former Madison police officer Capt. George Silverwood worked Halloween from the late 1970s to the early 2000s and said the early celebrations in the 1980s were not at all “riots.”

“They were fairly unremarkable in the fact that they ended on their own,” Silverwood said. “The two biggest were just before they changed the drinking age law.”

In 1982, the crowd size peaked at 100,000 people but when Wisconsin changed the drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1985, it “killed the party,” Gilles said.

“We just couldn’t justify putting it on,” Gilles said about a lack of revenue from beer sales.

The WSA sponsorship continued through 1987, but after beer garden laws changed, Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said the group made “the painful decision to pull the plug on Halloween funding.”

Silverwood said the only concerning event to happen when WSA hosted was in 1983 when a man fell off a roof at the corner of Lake and State streets and died. Someone stole the keys to the ambulance at the scene.

The Halloween celebration faced bad weather during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Verveer said, and a few student-sponsored, alcohol-free parties were not well attended.

In the late 1990s, Verveer said “the weather was so amazing” on Halloween that the crowds returned to State Street.

“From that year forward, State Street Halloween was coming back … with a vengeance,” Verveer said.

In 2000, crowds began growing, but it was not until 2002 that police used tear gas to disperse the crowds.

In 2002, police were not well prepared for the crowd Saturday, Nov. 1.

“The cops didn’t really gear up for the crowd that showed up Saturday,” Verveer said, adding Halloween was on a Thursday and police expected a party the weekend before.

Silverwood said his last year was in 2002 and described the incident as an “unfortunate confrontation.”

“There was a small group of very intoxicated males that caused an incident,” Silverwood said. “For whatever reason in the early ’80s, there were large crowds … [but] you did not have a core group of individuals that wanted to cause an incident.”

Gilles said the 1980s was a different time, with a different economy, and a free celebration for UW students will probably not happen.

“The time has changed,” Gilles said. “Unless they get some major sponsor that’s willing to underwrite [the expenses.]”

However, Verveer said he understands people don’t like the idea of Freakfest, especially if they’ve experienced a “more laidback Halloween,” but students should give it a try. “It’s not lame.”

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