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Fireworks displays handmade in Peabody

Peabody celebration carries on hand-made tradition

Staff writer

Computers have added a great deal to the lives and businesses of people who use them. There is hardly any facet of our lives not touched by the precision and efficiency of a computer.

However, next Wednesday Peabody and a couple thousand visitors will enjoy the 91st consecutive fireworks display at City Park and it will be created just as it has been for almost 100 years. Firing crews will light ground displays coordinated with shells and mortars; all of it built and mapped out by volunteers.

There is no computer in sight.

“We don’t even have a remote control to control the stadium lights,” event co-chairman Preston Hodges said. “Someone has to flip a light switch.”

Hodges and his wife Lisa have been in charge of the celebration for four years. They took over after longtime organizers Brian and Alisa McDowell moved to McPherson.

“Yes, we could do it the way the big cities do it if we wanted to,” he said. “But usually the bigger computerized shows use mostly aerial displays. People really seem to enjoy seeing the ground pieces and we have no trouble getting them sponsored year after year.

“This is Peabody. This is how we do Independence Day. We are closing in on 100 years of tradition and I can’t see it changing,” he added.

“The people who work to put on this show tend to be the same ones every year. And yes, we take some kidding about being pyromaniacs,” he admitted. “But Brian and Alisa come back every year to help. Their daughters come. Brian announces the show and he helps me order the fireworks.

“It’s the same with some of the others. Donnie Lehr has been in Wichita for about 20 years and he returns to head the crew that synchronizes and fires the ground pieces. And Bob Winter moved to Oklahoma, but he still comes back to be in charge of the aerial crew.”

Hodges said that at a training and testing session, one of the instructors told them most shows anymore consist of one or two ground pieces and a 15-minute aerial display — almost all of it run by computers.

“The guys from Peabody looked at each other like ‘why bother?’ We just aren’t interested in putting on that kind of a show,” he said. “There is a lot of tradition behind this event and we don’t want it die out on our watch.”

Hodges said the instructor thought that of the communities he works with in the Midwest, Peabody is about the last to put on a show that includes 15 or 20 ground displays.

It takes $12,000 to $15,000 to pay for the show every year. Hodges said he never has to go begging for sponsors.

“We have never applied for a grant or tried to get corporate sponsors,” he said. “Every year individuals and local and area businesses give us good support. So we figure we are giving them their money’s worth. Button sales are always good — and we feel a bargain at $3 — so the public is obviously happy with it as well.”

Hodges admits that having Jay Gfeller and his disc jockey technology, equipment, and know-how has been a plus.

“Jay takes care of picking music to synchronize with the set pieces or sometimes someone will just call us and say, ‘Hey, I heard this version of a particular song and think you ought to try it on the Fourth.’ The musical accompaniment is always changing and technology does play a roll there.”

However, the ground pieces are built just as they have been for decades and the aerial crew still sorts the shells according to size and color the day of the Fourth. They map out the theme and colors of the ground displays and coordinate the styles and colors of shells that are set off with them.

“The finale, the Battle of New Orleans, fired a million fireworks in 2011,” Hodges said. “We are going to do the same this year.

“We are serious about this event. The safety of the crowd and our volunteers is always on our minds, but I have to say we do have a good time doing it and it is rewarding,” he added. “Believe me, there is nothing like it. When the Battle of New Orleans is over, the crowd is going wild, and the lights start to come up, it is just such a rush! We are always ready to do it again.”

Peabody’s 91st annual fireworks show will take place at dusk July 4 in Peabody City Park. Admission buttons may be purchased from area business in advance or at the gate the night of the show.

Last modified June 28, 2012

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