The Morris Arboretum might be the only place to find Queen Elizabeth II, Mr. Rogers, Queen Elsa, and Jesus Christ all together.
As scarecrows, that is.
Since 2008, the Arboretum has organized a scarecrow-building and -designing competition for community members that crosses generations, both among makers and audiences. Participants pay a $30 fee and are given hay, barley, twine, a stake, and a theme to organize around. Upon being completed and dropped off, they are displayed along Oak Allée in the Arboretum’s landscape, through Halloween.
The themes are often random—one year was “Heroes and Villains,” for example—but, this year, coalesced around the Arboretum’s larger “Time in the Garden” theme that inspired an outdoor sculpture exhibit last spring.
“‘A Moment in Time’ is this year’s theme and is a significant occasion in a designer’s life they associate with a single public figure,” Marie Mercaldo Ingegneri, marketing coordinator for the Arboretum, who has organized the competition since its inception, explains. “They could be in sports, it could be a film star, an artist, a musician, a chef, a politician, etc.”
Twenty-eight total entries stock up the walk this year, lining either side of the 400-foot-long pathway that feels like nature’s red carpet for scarecrows. On one end is ever-popular Disney character Elsa from “Frozen” and Mary Poppins; on the other, an unnamed astronaut and a sweater-clad Mr. Rogers. Hard-to-miss entries that make up the middle are a little more adult-oriented: Queen Elizabeth II, holding her royal corgi and a parasol; Colin Kaepernick, bending his knee; Jesus Christ on a cross; and Susan B. Anthony with a picket sign that reads “Vote.”
Wilhelmina McDaniel, who co-created the Susan B. Anthony scarecrow alongside friend Maureen Hicks, says the idea for the work of art came from today’s political climate and excitement surrounding the upcoming election. It’s also, she says, nonpartisan and sends a healthy reminder to adults who visit Scarecrow Walk to vote not just for a winning scarecrow, but also cast real ballots in the upcoming midterm elections.
“We just thought this would be a great time to do something that’s fun, but also get across an educational message, and raise curiosity about Susan B. Anthony for kids,” says McDaniel, who works part-time for the Arboretum. “Also, hopefully, families will have conversations about the importance of voting and the history of voting rights.”
Ingegneri says the contest has developed as an opportunity for young kids to interact with elderly people who are able to swap perspectives.
“It’s very multi-generational,” she says. “And that’s great for conversation. Because the grandparents are talking to the little ones, and you hear conversations of different groups about who they [voted for] and why they chose it, and it brings up stories—an educational moment of ‘Who is an astronaut?’ and “Who was Mr. Rogers?’ Some kids might not know Mary Poppins.”
In recent years, she says, she’s pushed for organizations—like retirement communities and elementary schools—to submit a scarecrow as a group, as a team-building exercise and reason to travel for a leisurely stroll through Scarecrow Walk together. One participant this year was Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE); 12 students joined together to make a scarecrow emblematic of teachers.
“We’re in the School of Education, and although we’re working on a program management degree, teachers are a valuable part of the classroom and that’s who we do this for,” says Alejandra Villalobos, a graduate student at GSE, from Chicago. “We talked about professors we love, Dr. [Amrit] Thapa, and he teaches monitoring and evaluations. And he’s just really funny and a total dad, and we decided to make a dad who tells all these funny jokes.”
Villalobos bought dad pants at Walmart and another student wrote a dad joke. “The scarecrow isn’t him, but it is inspired by his teacher-ness,” she laughs.
Many among the cohort of students, Villalobos says, are international students who weren’t familiar with the scarecrow-making tradition. The activity ended up being an unexpected cultural learning exercise, too, aside from just being a good time.
“One of my favorite things about this contest is that families are making memories here,” Ingegneri remarks. “And the Arboretum is a prominent element in that memory. I think that is very lovely.
“It really has a long-range value.”