• Last modified 2213 days ago (June 27, 2013)


Peabody Fourth promises a million explosions

Celebrations have changed since 1921

Staff writer

According to newspaper files, photographs of July Fourth activities, and records of the former Peabody Chamber of Commerce, consecutive Peabody Fourth of July celebrations began in 1921. This year we arrive at the 92nd of them.

There are no “old timers” left to reminisce about early celebrations. Old black and white photographs show parades and patriotic speakers addressing crowds, probably at the city park, but there is not much concrete evidence of the growth of the event. It is likely the celebrations of old are nothing like those today.

Preston Hodges, who is in charge of fireworks, says for the third consecutive year, firing crews will create 1 million explosions. Visitors to the early day celebrations might have thought they were seeing the end of civilization, had an event of that magnitude taken place.

It is not known when the first fireworks show thrilled the community and eventually grew into an event that drew hundreds, then thousands to Peabody.

However, stories are told about caravans of Peabody people in their automobiles who traveled from town to town in the week or two preceding the Fourth celebration, vehicles festooned in red, white, and blue bunting, with signs inviting neighboring communities to come to Peabody’s park for the best fireworks show ever assembled. During the 1930s and 40s, that was how word about the celebration was spread.

Peabody was the only community for miles around with an Independence Day celebration to rival any other in the state. People tell and write about living miles out in the country and sitting on their lawns or roofs to watch the fireworks being shot off in Peabody City Park.

The celebration grew during the 1960s and 1970s and included state and local centennial celebrations and, later, the U.S. Bicentennial. Crowds grew as well, and by the late 1970s, the Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the event, decided it was time to downsize before crowds overwhelmed security staff and someone got seriously hurt.

By the early 1980s, attendance had dropped, and Peabody began to concentrate on providing a downsized hometown celebration rather than the “largest free fireworks display” in the state. Since then the celebration has remained low-key and family oriented. The Fourth Celebration Committee estimates it costs between $13,000 and $15,000 to put on the celebration every year. Private donations and $3 admittance buttons cover costs.

When the Chamber of Commerce disbanded in the 1990s, the Fourth Celebration Committee took its place and has functioned since then as a group dedicated to a single objective — keeping the traditional July Fourth Celebration going in the Peabody community.

Today, many towns, small and large, host visitors looking for a Fourth of July fireworks show. Technology has made many shows polished computerized productions that keep visitors’ eyes trained on colorful aerial displays high in the sky. Mortars and fireworks explode with scientific precision from beginning to end.

However, Peabody still fires 15 to 20 handmade ground displays — or set pieces — along with dozens of mortars and aerial shells, just as it has for more than half the past century. There is no limit to the creativity in the design other than the cleanliness of form so that the audience can tell what it represents.

Each set piece is built by volunteers, the colored lances set to boards and connected by a fuse that fires the design as the master of ceremonies names it and credits the donors. Seldom seen elsewhere, the set pieces are crowd favorites.

According to an instructor who trains and certifies the Peabody firing crews, Peabody is one of only a few communities in the Midwest that still builds set pieces from scratch and coordinates them with aerial displays. Committee members that supervise and train the volunteers are certified annually to handle fireworks and oversee anyone who helps build and fire ground displays or mortars and aerial shells.

The grand finale every year is “The Battle of New Orleans,” which features half of the million fireworks in the show.

Last modified June 27, 2013