ST. MARYS — What started as a way for families to safely look at dozens of scarecrows in downtown St. Marys has morphed into the city’s unofficial Halloween celebration.

It’s still called the Scarecrow Stroll, but when downtown merchants began handing out candy a few years ago, children began dressing in costumes and showing up in greater numbers.

Last year, the event attracted more than 5,000 people, with most of the children dressed in costume, said Kelly Davis, a member of the St. Marys Downtown Merchants Association which sponsors the event.

“A lot of children will dress up, but it’s not mandatory,” she said.

The stroll, held from 5-7 p.m. today, is free and open to the public. Participating merchants throughout the downtown district each have more than 2,500 pieces of candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters, she said. Some merchants also serve hot chocolate for those who stop in their stores.

About 75 displays, many with multiple scarecrows, have been set up in the median on Osborne Street from City Hall to the waterfront. Other scarecrows are also displayed on private property throughout the city.

Many displays have a wide variety of props that show the creative and sometimes quirky side of local businesses and residents.

Last year, Davis said many people mistakenly thought City Hall was the starting point for the stroll, creating lines people waited in unnecessarily.

She recommended people take side streets to Osborne Street and start the self-guided tour downtown or midway along the route.

For those who can’t attend today’s stroll, it’s still worth a trip to downtown St. Marys until the end of the month, when the displays will be removed so the city can begin erecting Christmas decorations.

The Hay Days celebration is good for business throughout the month. Motorists will often park to go on their own self guided scarecrow stroll and stop in local gift shops or restaurants.