A Brief History of the Humble Scarecrow


Alice Kinerk, KP News

The scarecrows are back. Or at least, they will be soon. Silly and spooky scarecrows will begin popping up along local roadways, cheering harried commuters, delighting local children and heralding the start of another autumn on Key Peninsula. 

The scarecrow contest, sponsored by the KP Farm Council, builds anticipation for the annual Key Peninsula Farm Tour the first Saturday in October. 

Scarecrows have fearlessly served humans in their pursuit of bountiful harvest throughout the ages.

People have been finding ways to keep birds off crops for centuries. Scarecrows were used in Ancient Greece; Roman farmers adopted the practice when Greece became part of the empire.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, it was the job of the farmer’s children to run into the fields and scare off flocks of hungry crows. But when the Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population beginning in the 1340s, survivors discovered humanoid statues did the job just as well. 

Three centuries later, early American settlers brought their own idea of scarecrows to farms in the New World. It was the German word for scarecrow, “bootzamon,” which eventually became “bogeyman,” a creepy mythical man who has been frightening children into good behavior ever since.

Scarecrows reached their heyday in America before World War II, before synthetic pesticides took over as the preferred method for commercial agricultural production. It was then the idea of scarecrows in popular culture morphed from useful agricultural tool into whimsical autumn decor. 

Given their human appearance, it is no surprise that scarecrows still occupy a special place in the cultural imagination. America’s most famous scarecrow, the kindly fellow who helps Dorothy travel the yellow brick road in “The Wizard of Oz,” announces from the outset his desire for a brain. This stands in opposition to the Japanese scarecrow “kuebiko,” a Shinto deity of knowledge and agriculture represented in mythology as a scarecrow who cannot walk but has comprehensive knowledge of all things.

Making a scarecrow is an easy weekend project with lots of room for creativity. To begin, nail together two pieces of wood to make a cross-shaped frame and pound one end into the ground. Slip an old, long-sleeve button-down shirt over the frame. Tie a knot or cinch off at the waistband and at each cuff. Stuff the shirt with straw. Add gloves to hide the ends of the crossbeam.

Then, do the same with an old pair of jeans. Tie knots at the cuffs and stuff straw inside. Attach the pants to the shirt by running rope or string through the belt loops and over the shoulders like suspenders. Tall rubber boots that have sprung a leak or crummy sneakers destined for the trash add a realistic touch.

The head could be a gourd or pumpkin with a hole cut just big enough to be fitted securely atop the vertical beam. Alternatively, decorate an old pillowcase with facial features and stuff it with hay. A hat or more hay for hair is a great finish.

Kathy Lyons of Lakebay has charmed scores of travelers through Key Center with her amusing scarecrow creations, including her SpongeBob-inspired “Hay Bale Squarepants,” which took first place in the annual scarecrow competition sponsored by the KP Farm Council in 2014. Lyons also turned heads with her scarecrow “Girl on a Bicycle” in 2017. 

“Use your imagination, make it fun for yourself and attempt to entertain others.” Lyons said. “Be sure to make it sturdy. Use rebar for posts, as there are crazy winds in Key Center.”