For its 100th birthday, Laurie Kokenes wanted to get the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce something special.
The chamber’s director since the 1990s, Kokenes put herself in charge of the celebration, knowing the quirky town she served deserved something a little more outside the norm than cupcakes, balloons and funny hats, especially with the spookiest day of the year approaching on the calendar. So she looked west for inspiration.
“I was looking for a Halloween event and found (Manitou Springs), Colorado had casket races and I didn’t even look any further,” she said. “(I thought) that’s so Forest Park.”
Thus the caskets rolled, garish four-wheeled reminders of one’s own mortality and the village’s morbid pride that its dead and buried residents far outnumber its living ones, piloted by four hearty souls down Beloit Avenue every October since 2012, except of course for last year when COVID-19 kept even the coffins at home.
The Delta variant, potent as it may be, will cause no such postponement this time. Forest Park’s ninth edition of the Casket Races is Saturday, Oct. 23, and after what have been two trying years of pandemic frustration, isolation and cancelations, revelers will once again celebrate the living, laugh at death and come together, one casket-on-wheels zipping by a house party at a time.
“Being able to celebrate the charm of our town and enjoy it together,” Forest Park Commissioner Jessica Voogd said, “it’s wonderful to have that and really important.”
History says that Emma Crawford arrived in Manitou Springs in the late 1800s believing the cold-water mineral springs there could cure her tuberculosis. She was wrong, of course, and in 1891 she died, her dying wish apparently that her body be buried at the top of Red Mountain, a towering peak in the Cascade Range in southwest Colorado.
Fortunately for Crawford, as the organizers of the Emma Crawford Coffin Races explain it, her lover at the time of her death was a civil engineer named William Hildebrand who, along with 11 helpers, made Crawford’s dying wish come true. At least until snow and heavy rains washed what was left of her (and her casket) back into town.
One hundred and four years later, the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce used that story to inspire what are believed to be the world’s first-of-its-kind coffin races and more than a decade after that Kokenes had a birthday to commemorate.
“To this day if someone doesn’t know Forest Park or they don’t know the event, I have to preface it with, ‘you’re going to think this is weird,’” Kokenes said.
Still, from the beginning, Kokenes said some Forest Parkers took the concept and ran with it.
The ostensible object of the casket races is to win, and prizes are awarded to the teams that cover the one-block course first, second and third, with the winners sprinting the 585 feet on Beloit Avenue in a matter of seconds. Teams of four runners push the caskets using handles or a bar, depending on your preferred casket design, with a fifth teammate, a “ghost” rider, inside. There are minimum and maximum size requirements — between 5 and 10 feet long, and between 2 feet and 3 feet, 10 inches wide — but otherwise the design is left up to the imagination, and prizes are awarded there, too, for the most “frighteningly funny” and creepiest casket in the competition.
And then there is the “dead last” trophy, awarded to the team that takes the longest to cover the one-block course. Kokenes said that some years those competing for that honor face some of the stiffest competition.
“One year, Schauer’s Hardware had Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures build an ice casket that probably weighed 600 pounds. They brought it over on a tow truck,” Kokenes said. “They knew they weren’t going to move that thing anywhere but they wanted to have fun with it.”
Then there was the year Riveredge Hospital showed up with a team of flying monkeys, or Riveredge’s “creepiest casket” winner in 2019 that paid homage to the Mexican Day of the Dead, or the literal bridal party costumed as zombie groomsmen and bridesmaids that made a go of it one year, Kokenes said.
This year’s field boasts 18 entrants, the same number as in 2019 and one of the largest lineups in the event’s history. But Kokenes said she takes particular pride in some of the teams that decided to participate for the first time this year, including two from the Forest Park Police Department and another made up of members of the village council.
“I always thought it would be kind of cute to see the Village Council have their own casket and I was chatting with Commissioner (Maria) Maxham and she said, ‘oh my god, I love it,’” Voogd said last week.
It took minimal prodding, Voogd said, to get the rest of the council on board, but Voogd said her team’s projected speed might be more suitable for the bottom than the top of the leaderboard. The design, on the other hand, is already a point of pride although its precise look is shrouded in mystery.
“It is inspired by Forest Park history, so it’s a historical theme,” Voogd said when asked to describe it. “I think it’s coming along really well. I know (Forest Park special effects extraordinaire) Geoff (Binns-Calvey) has been doing some work in the shop getting the structure set up and Commissioner (Ryan) Nero and I have been putting together the stuff we’re using to decorate it. Everybody’s been working on their costume independently.”
“Super exciting,” Kokenes said of getting the village council to join the race for the first time. “They approve our things all the time from behind the desk and I think it’s great that they’re in it and they’ll get even more excited about the event and get more people on board.”
While the race might cover a short distance — the one-block course takes runners and riders on Beloit Avenue between Madison and Adams streets — spectator interest has been growing from the beginning. Kokenes said that houses on the block now regularly host parties to cheer the competitors on, something that’s become so common the chamber now also awards a best house party award. A handful of local businesses support the event, too, and pets-and-kids costume parade plus post-event trick-or-treating on Madison have become featured parts of the day.
“Kids, adults, neighbors, some people come from other towns as well,” Kokenes said. “Sometimes it’s the most unlikely people.”
“It’s just nice to have everybody come together and do something fun.”
The ninth annual Forest Park Casket Races begin with team check-ins at 9 a.m. (Registration is discouraged on race day if you happen have a casket-on-wheels laying around but have not yet signed up). Hot chocolate and coffee will be served beginning at 9:30, a casket parade steps off at 10:30 and the races begin at 11 a.m.