October 31, 2013

Maine town’s witchy woman remains spellbinding

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

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.

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Tradition: Leola Roberts dressed as “Eldora” in 2010.

Contributed photo

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Born on Halloween 100 years ago, Leola Roberts can still be the bewitching presence she was while delighting – and scaring – generations of children as Eldora the witch.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

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

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 invented Eldora. The costume includes a standard black pointed hat with a 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.

At family gatherings, Eldora took the children into the cellar, decorated with homemade eyeballs and littered with corpses. There, she blindfolded the kids and had them touch frightening items in her witch’s cauldron.

“I’d get them kids down there and I would tell them stories,” she said.

She remembered one little boy in particular.

“He says, ‘You can’t scare me. My father’s a policeman,’” Roberts said. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to scare you. Just come on down into the cellar.’ And he came with me.”

She paused, ominously.

“And he. Was. Scared.”

The secret to frightening a stalwart child, she said, is all in the mouth. She demonstrated, opening and closing her mouth rapidly while creating a wet, smacking sound with her tongue and lips, just one of the witchy tricks she has amassed over the decades.

On Tuesday, thinking about those days, she tottered off, excited, leaving her walker behind – another neat trick – and came back a minute later with an armful of her creative works: a painting, photos and five books she has written and bound herself. They contain her memories, family history, recipes and hundreds of poems.

“I had so many coming out of my stupid brain,” she said.

Her poem on Halloween, in which she plays a Halloween trick on her mother, opens: “Halloween is a day of excitement/and of mystery, you will find./But the first time Mother looked at me,/she almost lost her mind.”

If the family history is to be believed, Roberts’ very existence demonstrates a kind of magic. When she was born, on Oct. 31, 1913, her mother was only seven months pregnant. The family history quotes Roberts’ sister, Ellen, 8 at the time, describing how a midwife and a doctor went into her mother’s bedroom, while her father boiled water on the wood stove and her oldest sister, Viola, 21, assisted.

Ellen and her brother Earl, 4, only knew that their mother was suffering a stomach ache, and they were kept out of the room.

“Viola told us the doctor had brought the baby in his big black bag, and we believed her,” Ellen wrote.

Roberts was born weighing an estimated 11/2 pounds, so small that the midwife could put her wedding ring on her wrist. She spent much of her first few months in a shoe box near the stove, where it was warm.

“The doctor told my mother and dad not to get accustomed to me, that I may not live,” she said.

A century later, she is small still.

Roberts stopped playing Eldora a couple of years ago. Just last year, at the age of 99, she moved in with her daughter, Ellis, now 75.

Sitting at the kitchen table in her daughter’s home, Roberts sifted through the pieces of the Eldora costume, stored in a plastic bag from Levine’s, a Waterville clothing store that closed 17 years ago.

“The shoes aren’t in there, Mama,” Ellis said. “I don’t know what happened to the shoes.”

Roberts didn’t hear her.

Eldora may have disappeared, she said, but the character was just one small part of her family’s Halloween traditions. And Halloween was just one part of her memories.

She fingered the rubber nose, the cape she sewed 50 years ago.

“What are we going to do with all that junk?” she said. “Probably put it in the rubbish.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 mhhetling@centralmaine.com@hh_matt;http://www.twitter.com
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