I took my ten year old daughter trick-or-treating around the neighborhood tonight. Now that she's getting older we cover more ground and get further afield on Halloween night. Towards the end of our outing, we walked down Oak Street and turned the corner on Indiana Terrace. We suddenly got a whiff of a very familiar smell. It was familiar, but we still couldn't quite figure out what it was.
Just then we saw a crowd of kids coming our way and each of them was carrying a tower of cotton candy.
Half way up Indiana Terrace we got to the source. Up on his front porch, in costume, was Jan Huffman with a giant stainless steel, industrial quality cotton candy maker. I know Jan, in fact he was featured in a previous Dispatch From Upper Falls. I didn't know anything about this side of Jan though - the cotton candy spinning side.
It turns out that Jan's father was a "50 miler" in Peoria, Illinois. A "50 miler" was a small businessman who worked a circuit of county fairs, church picnics, etc within a 50 mile radius of his house. Jan's dad had a cotton candy machine and a couple of sno-cone machines and he'd travel from town to town whenever there was an event and set up shop for the day. Occasionally Jan would get to tag along too.
Jan's father died about thirty years ago and bequeathed the cotton candy machine to him in his will. The machine was stashed away for years and nearly forgotten. About fifteen years ago, Jan's wife Susan said that she was getting tired of just handing out the same bags of candy every year and was itching to try something different. So that year they gave away pencils - yes, pencils. As you might imagine, they weren't the most popular house on the street that year. The following year though, Jan suggested that they haul out the cotton candy machine and give that a try. They were a bit nervous that parents might be wary of this non-prepackaged treat. They needn't have worried. From the first minutes after they fired up the machine, kids came running.
So for the last 15 years, Jan and his cotton candy machine have been a neighborhood Halloween institution with a big and loyal following. For my daughter and all of the children I saw on Indiana Terrace, Jan's cotton candy was without a doubt the biggest treat of the night.
I think it's a great thing that Jan's been keeping his father's machine spinning all these years and I know there's a big crowd of neighborhood kids (and parents) that agree.