October 31, 2013

Maine’s oldest “witch” turns 100 in Oakland

Leola May Roberts, who dressed as a witch for 50 years, reflects on a century of Halloween fun

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND — A well-kept kitchen in a house on Belgrade Road is the last place you might look to find a witch.

click image to enlarge

Contributed photo Tradition: Leola Roberts dressed as “Eldora” in 2010. Roberts. who said she loves Halloween, will celebrate her 100th birthday today.

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SCARY BIRTHDAY: Leola Roberts, of Oakland, speaks fondly about having her birthday fall on Halloween, especially this year, when she turns 100.

Staff photo by David Leaming

But there she was Tuesday afternoon, emerging from a rear hallway, slowly guiding her walker to the table, which she can barely see these days.

Leola Roberts, who turns 100 years old today, on Halloween, spent 50 of those years dressing up in costume as Eldora, a witch she invented to frighten delighted children in her family and the community.

Roberts, who is small, frail and hard of hearing, has retired from her days as Eldora, but her personality still shines through when she speaks about the 99 Halloweens she has seen.

“I’m old,” she said. “You’ll believe anything I’ll say.”

Roberts doesn’t practice witchcraft, but she can cast a spell of sorts by transporting listeners into the past with accounts of her childhood. The youngest of eight children, she remembers trick-or-treating with a group of children, walking by themselves in the moonlight on a country road in Winslow, covering five miles over the course of the night.

They dressed as ghosts and fairies, in homemade costumes, carrying baskets they made themselves and decorated in bright paper, asking for candy, much of which came in the form of homemade fudge, toffee, chocolate and molasses.

The boys would pretend to see bobcats in the fields, or growl from behind bushes.

“They would get us scared, us poor girls,” she said.

The threat of bobcats was real, she said. Her brother, Earl, was attacked by one while coming down a steep hill one night, although he suffered only scratches on his neck before he fended it off.

In between the sparsely arranged houses and the pranks, “we would sing for miles,” she said.

She doesn’t remember most of the song names, but they were mostly church songs or traditional tunes.

“All the old songs, about boats a’rowing,” she said.

Halloween was also a time for family parties. She remembered her mother would make blueberry pie and the children would race to finish their slice, blindfolded and without the use of their hands.

“Then we would bob for apples,” she said. “Oh yes, you had to wash that blueberry off somehow.”

Roberts has seen a lot of history in the days since she graduated from Winslow High School in 1932 amid the Great Depression.

“We were kids. We didn’t know what the depression was,” she said. “We lived on oatmeal practically, and potatoes, and vegetables from the garden.”

She remembers when cars first began appearing on the roads, right around when she got married. During her first ride, in a Model T Ford, the front wheel came off as they motored down a hill.

Roberts took a job with the Diamond Toothpick Factory and carried on the family’s Halloween traditions for her only child, Charlene Ellis, and for 27 nieces and nephews.

By then, Roberts was the one to make the blueberry pies and organize the games.

Eldora is born

Around 1960, as great-niece and great-nephews began to appear at the large family gatherings, Roberts first invented Eldora. The costume, which she wore for about 50 years, includes a standard black pointed hat with a wide brim; a rubber nose; a wig of long, tangled gray hair; a cape that she sewed herself; and a pair of tall black bumpy shoes she said is nearly 200 years old today.

Eldora made appearances at annual family gatherings, as well as at community events. She has entertained children at First Baptist Church in Waterville and at a country store in Winslow. At the church, she told the story of the Wizard of Oz, taking children along a yellow brick road made of crepe paper and using some antique dolls from her own collection. She has since donated the dolls to the Winslow Public Library, where they are still on display.

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