Independence Day or the Fourth of July: No matter what you call it, there will be festivities – picnics and barbecues and splashes and belly busters in swimming pools and lakes across Kansas.
You can count on explosions of light and sound – sparklers, aerial displays, poppers and snaps, all in the name of celebrating the birth of a country 238 years ago when the 13 colonies separated from Great Britain and declared their independence from a king’s tyranny and taxation.
The first celebration in Kansas was more than two centuries ago when members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition celebrated near what is now Atchison by firing off shots and drinking extra whiskey on July 4, 1804.
Present-day celebrations across the state tend to be family-oriented.
In Ashland, in southwest Kansas, the population of nearly 900 swells as people gather for a pancake breakfast, the state’s largest turtle race, and a Lucky Duck race featuring plastic ducks floating down three of the town’s blocks as firefighters turn on hoses and encourage the plastic fowl to swim. The ducks are numbered and the owners of the first ducks to cross the finish line win cash prizes and high-dollar items.
The turtle races often amass as many as 200 turtles, said Loree Krier, Ashland Chamber president.
“Every little child has a turtle, and this year, turtles are everywhere,” Krier said. “The firemen number the little turtles with chalk – something that’s safe for the turtles – the turtles are then put in a big circle with a 20-foot diameter, and the first turtle that goes across the line wins a trophy.”
So do the largest turtle and the smallest turtle.
“It is such a family atmosphere and community event,” Krier said. “When we get together, we know everybody or almost everybody. People come home to this celebration. We may not be as power-packed as Wichita, but this is a huge community affair.”
Celebrating across Kansas
Take a drive across the heart of Kansas on a Fourth of July night, smell freshly cut wheat or alfalfa, then look across the horizon for fireworks displays exploding in the distance as individual communities celebrate the national holiday.
Whether it’s Wichita or Wichita County, celebrations are taking place. As a citywide celebration, there are no large fireworks displays on July 4 in Wichita, but there are still many neighborhood and family celebrations taking place.
Ann Wilcoxson, who lives in north Wichita, said she plans on getting together with family at 13th and Maize, where her aunt and uncle have a swimming pool and plenty of fireworks.
“We will be celebrating with family, but we will also be taking some time to remember that we are fortunate to be in this country,” Wilcoxson said.
In Leoti, in Wichita County, near the Colorado and Kansas state line, the 1,500 residents are all about showing their athletic skills.
There is a mini-triathlon in the morning – 3 miles on a bicycle, 100-yard swim and a mile run, followed by a co-ed volleyball tournament and then a ranch rodeo toward the evening. As darkness falls, a fireworks show is hosted by the volunteer fire department.
Residents carry their own lawn chairs to the south edge of town and watch the night display.
“I love the Fourth of July as a holiday in general, but I think it is special to all members of this community because we come together,” said Simone Cahoj, director of Wichita County Economic Development. “It’s families, friends and neighbors gathered to celebrate.”
Making a comeback
There was a time when the town of Jewell, near the Nebraska line, was nearly blown away. An EF-3 tornado on May 28, 2008 tore through the community, collapsing the water tower and destroying multiple businesses and homes.
There was no fireworks celebration that year.
Nor the next year.
But in 2010, Thelma Shelton went before the Jewell City Council and told them, “We need to do something.”
At that point, the closest fireworks shows were in Glen Elder, 24 miles from Jewell, or Concordia, 31 miles.
“I asked the chamber, ‘What would be the chances of us doing our own?’” Shelton said. “My husband, Frank, is 70; I’m 69. It is a lot of work but it is worth it. Our town doesn’t have a whole lot. But we do this.”
As a fundraiser, the community of 400 residents hosted a hamburger and baked bean dinner. That raised $1,200.
Robin Edmonds from Berryton agreed to do the fireworks by nearby Lake Emerson.
The next year, the fundraiser was a chicken-and-noodle feed.
Last year, donations were simply taken at the gate.
In the meantime, one resident brings homemade ice cream; another, a food truck, Shelton said.
This year’s celebration will be Saturday night.
“We decorate. We fly our flag. I think people need to show their appreciation,” Shelton said. “To me this is about community.”
For other Kansans, the holiday is about celebrating with one another from up high and afar.
At Mount Sunflower, the highest point in Kansas, Ed and Cindy Harold will sometimes watch the fireworks from two states – Colorado and Kansas. The elevation at Mount Sunflower in Wallace County on the Kansas-Colorado line is 4,039 feet, roughly 3,300 feet higher than the state’s lowest point in Montgomery County in southeastern Kansas.
Ed Harold says they only go if the wheat harvest is over or slowed down. This year, they leased their wheat fields to other farmers.
In years past, the Harold family has seen the fireworks in Burlington, Colo., 34 miles away; Goodland, 34 miles; Sharon Springs, 24 miles; Cheyenne Wells, Colo., 30 miles; and nearby Weskan, 12 miles.
“It is a wonderful tradition to be there and see this panoramic view,” Cindy Harold said.