Hard work paying off for Peabody’s July 4 celebration

by Cynthia Martens

Brian McDowell, president of the Peabody July 4th Celebration Society thinks outside the box.

“We want to be Marion County’s Fourth of July, not just Peabody’s Fourth of July,” McDowell said.

Wife Alisa agreed. “We would like to include more of the towns in the county,” she said.

The committee calls this year’s festivities the 81st annual celebration in terms of consecutive years, but McDowell said it goes back further than that.

“Some of the old newspapers would talk about the people who would come from Herington in the 1880s,” he said. “The train would stop here, and they would watch the fireworks.”

The festivities this year begin with a Peabody High School alumni dance in the evening, July 3, at the American Legion Hall.

Saturday’s plate is full, beginning with a Kiwanis Flea Market at 8 a.m. The day continues with a horseshoe tournament, kids’ games, cat and dog show, parade, Music in the Park, amusements by Celebrations, carnival, food vendors, fly-over and fireworks in the evening.

The three-day event is capped off with a softball tournament on Saturday, July 6. (For more details, see sidebar.)

A seven-member committee of volunteers met once a month beginning in January. Then in June, they met four nights a week-building their own ground-display fireworks called set pieces-until the day of the celebration.

The committee is responsible for the aerial fireworks, carnival, vendors and various other park activities.

“The Peabody Rec Commission has taken over the kids’ games for us because it was too much to try and set all this stuff up,” McDowell said.

“Tammy Whiteside and Rose Thomason are doing the parade, and they did a wonderful job last year.”

The man credited with the current extravaganza is Jack Whisler, McDowell said.

“At least, he’s the one everybody goes back to. He used to be called Mr. Fireworks.”

And would Mr. Fireworks be proud of this year’s events?

“Yes, every year the set pieces get bigger, and we get more and more people to help,” McDowell said.

The fireworks take place at the south end of the football field at Peabody City Park. A barricade fence is set up at the 50-yard line so sets can be displayed in the south end, and the aerial fireworks are shot from the back side of the track.

“They shoot the aerial shells across the road because we have to be 300 feet away from the crowd,” McDowell said.

Spectators, in past years ranging from 3,000 to 5,000, can sit on the north half of the field, at the baseball stadium or wherever they find a place to call their own.

“Basically, everybody comes out and brings lawn chairs and towels and fills up every spot they can find,” said McDowell, who serves as master of ceremonies.

The fireworks display begins at 9:45 p.m. and is accompanied by music appropriate to each set piece.

“Set pieces are basically pictures out of fire,” McDowell said.

This year’s set pieces include the American flag, the Kansas City Chiefs, Peabody/Burns Warriors, a deer honoring Doyle Creek Taxidermy in Peabody, an angel, Kansas State University’s Wildcat, Kansas University’s Jayhawk, the Liberty Bell, Niagara Falls, praying hands, Spiderman, an eagle, the Statue of Liberty, Stitch, a windmill, a volcanic Luau and the Battle of New Orleans.

One other set is a secret that won’t be revealed until that night.

“The clue is: Peter Jennings may not like it,” McDowell said with a chuckle.

About 20 aerial shells will be shot between each set piece, and the finale begins with the Battle of New Orleans.

“In my opinion, that’s our claim to fame,” McDowell said.

It begins with two set pieces designed as cannons that symbolize the Battle of New Orleans.

“The two cannons will start firing, and we’ve got two huge roman candles-they shoot two-inch fireballs out of them-and they fire back at each other,” McDowell said.

“And then we’ve got boxes that each hold anywhere from 50 to 100 shots on the ground. And we’ll probably shoot off 30 of those while the cannons are firing at each other.”

The finale aerials complete the evening events, which are over at about 11 p.m.

But what really sets the Peabody fireworks apart from the typical display is the set pieces, McDowell said.

Lisa and her mother design some of the sets, which begin with individual drawings on graph paper.

Each drawing is copied onto a set by bending and fashioning strips of bamboo onto wooden grids made of one-inch by two- inch pine.

Next comes pinning.

“We take nails that have a point on each end, put them about four to five inches apart and stick them into the bamboo,” McDowell said.

“After we do that, we’ll take lances-which are basically candles with colored gun powder inside them-dip one end in glue and stick it onto the nails we’ve put in.”

The colored gun powder comes in blue, white, red and yellow.

Two days elapse before the next building step-a fuse will run across the top of each lance.

As the fuse burns across the top of the lance, it sets that color of gun powder on fire, McDowell said.

“After it goes through all of it, then the fuse is gone and basically the colors of the lances make a picture. They take about 10 hours to build and they burn for 45 seconds.”

The aerial fireworks are purchased from Premier Pyrotechnics in Lee Summit, Mo., and about five licensed pyrotechnicians will be on hand Thursday, which is a legal requirement.

When the owner of the fireworks company had an opportunity to see the set pieces designed and built by the committee volunteers, he was surprised to see 18 sets hanging from the ceiling of the storage facility, McDowell said.

“We had them hanging from the ceiling of the Round House-all lanced-and he just stood there in awe. He said, ‘Wow, this is a dying art, nobody does this anymore.'”

The committee solicits $100 donations for each set piece and those donations come from businesses or individuals.

Businesses can choose to have a commercial announced before the set piece is lighted or individuals can choose to have a memorial of a loved one who has passed on.

“Basically, that $100 breaks even by the time you buy the lances, bamboo and wood,” McDowell said.

They also ask for donations for the aerials and the Battle of New Orleans, which costs about $1,500 to put on.

Money from button and wrist-band sales also helps off-set the cost of the celebration.

Buttons are required for admittance into the park.

Two button styles are available at a cost of $2 per person prior to the fourth and $3 that day. Children three and under are admitted free.

Designed by area school children who entered a contest, one is patriotic with United We Stand written on it, and the other has angels symbolizing the events of Sept. 11.

Wrist bands or tickets are available for the carnival events.

“You can buy wrist bands ahead of time for $5, and they can do as many things as many times as they want to,” McDowell said.

On July 4th, the wrist bands will be $8.

Any profits made at the end of each year are used for next year’s events.

This is McDowell’s ninth year on the committee, and he said he still recalls the first time he saw the fireworks when he moved to Peabody in July, 1993.

“I said, ‘I want to be a part of that,'” McDowell said.

“It’s pretty cool. Especially for being a small town. We’ve got our 1880s Main Street, but this is what Peabody is known for.”

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