Celebrating the Fourth of July in Kansas is a tradition more than two centuries old – and it almost always revolves around fireworks, food and gatherings.
It’s been that way since 1804 and the first Independence Day celebration on Kansas soil by the Lewis and Clark Expedition near what is now Atchison.
“Ussered in the day by a discharge of one shot from our Bow piece, procceeded on. Jos. Fields got bit by a Snake, which was quickly doctered by Cap Lewis. Passed a Creek 12 yds wide as this Creek has no name, and this being the 4th of July the day of the independence of the U.S. call it 4th of July 1804 Creek. we closed the (day) by a Descharge from our bow piece, an extra Gill of whiskey.”
– William Clark
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In 1804, Kansas had not even been declared a territory. That would come 50 years later, in 1854; and in 1861, it would finally reach statehood.But in 1804, the land that would later become Kansas had just been been purchased by the U.S. government from France.
In more recent decades, community celebrations have become more elaborate, more technical and lean heavily on volunteers to help fund, man and carry off the near impossible in an ever-tightening economy. But the meaning and tradition are still the same as they were in 1804.
“It’s families coming together. They embrace their independence and the freedom we live in,” said Mary Lyn Barnett, executive director of the Wamego Chamber of Commerce, whose town has been hosting Fourth of July celebrations for 142 consecutive years.
In some Kansas communities, a town’s population may swell three or four times its normal size on the holiday as extended family and former residents return home.
Independence Day becomes a time for barbecues, adult beverages, decorated-bike parades for kids and light shows across the night sky – from fireflies flitting in backyard gardens to shooting fountains, sparklers, aerial displays, poppers and snaps.
The town of Peabody has 92 years of tradition and a light show that promises to set off more than a million firecrackers before the night is over.
“Originally it was about celebrating the birth of the nation, but then this tradition became ingrained into people’s childhood memories so that they come back each year with their children and friends,” said Shane Marler, Peabody city administrator.
Each year, it is all about making a show bigger and better.
It is about creating memories.
According to Leo Oliva, a Kansas historian who has researched military and frontier life on the Plains, most celebrations were military oriented.
Kansas forts often celebrated the day with the firing of cannons, officers giving speeches and extra rations of whiskey for the soldiers. The July Fourth celebration in 1834 at Fort Leavenworth included a group of Pawnee Indian chiefs who participated in activities that included a special dinner, cigars, wine and a powwow, Oliva wrote in “Our Kansas Heritage.”
The holiday has also been a time for accidents and mishaps. One of the more historic Kansas accidents, Oliva points out, happened in 1846 near Pawnee Rock. That’s when a pregnant Susan Shelby Magoffin – a traveler along the Santa Fe Trail – hurriedly carved her name on the giant sandstone rock formation. But fearing Indians might be in the area, her caravan quickly hurried west. The wagon she was riding in tipped over and she was injured, later suffering a miscarriage.
The holiday for some Kansans has also been a time for home projects. In 1872, a frontier doctor in Smith County was hosting a cabin raising. Brewster Higley’s cabin had three limestone walls; on the south wall, he put in logs. From that cabin that overlooked Beaver Creek, Higley would write a poem that would be set to music and within decades become one of the most known folk songs in the world – and the Kansas state song, “Home on the Range.”
That same year, Marsh Murdock, founding editor and publisher of The Wichita Eagle, wrote an advance story about the July Fourth weekend saying that Wichitans could hear bands, see regatta races on the river, gawk at hot-air balloon ascensions, hear speeches, attend dances, drink barrels of ice-cold lemonade and view a parade and plenty of fireworks.
Kansas festivities of note
Celebrations haven’t changed much since then.
On July Fourth, Peabody – a town of 1,200 – usually swells to 5,000 or more people, and the daylong celebration includes a carnival, parade, car show, dog show, horseshoes tournament, dances – and ultimately, a fireworks show.
“The impressive thing is that all the people come together to make it happen,” Marler said. “You can cut away some of the expense with elbow grease and sweat, but the beauty is that everyone chips in and feels a part of the celebration.”
This year, Preston and Lisa Hodges are the coordinators for the town’s celebration.
“It is a year-round job,” Preston Hodges said. “But it is not just us two doing it. We work with a lot of great volunteers. This celebration was always something that I remember looking forward to when I was a kid. It is something I take pride in. I like my kids to help out and be part of it so that when they are older and look back, they have the happy memories I do.”
Marler calls Peabody “Norman Rockwell’s vision come to life. It is small-town Americana. There are certain events in towns that have an X factor. They are special. And it is not that the town is rich, but Peabody has always been known for its impressive fireworks.”
Each year, the town raises between $10,000 and $12,000 in private donations for the fireworks display.
For decades – even back to the 1930s and 1940s – it was known for its Fourth of July celebration, Marler said. People would pile in cars and come from miles around. Peabody residents would make sure their houses and yards were neat, to welcome their guests. On Tuesday, the Hodgeses were painting a giant American flag on their driveway.
“Countless times, I’ve heard from people who say, ‘We used to go see the fireworks with Grandpa and Grandma or we’d meet someone from another town and go to Peabody,’” Hodges said. “It’s what we have been known for. It is nice to be known for something good and kind of wholesome. I take pride in that.”
Wamego is another one of those towns.
In 2011, Wamego was recognized for having “the best public display in Kansas.”
In recent years, it has been harder for smaller communities and neighborhoods to host fireworks shows because of state and federal regulations, cost and liabilities. Wamego not only embraced the changes, it took it up a notch or two, said Chris Hupe, a member of the Wamego Pyro Crew, which organizes and operates the event. All of the Pyro Crew have passed exams administered through the Pyrotechnic Guild International. They can possess and shoot off commercial fireworks until, well, the cows come home.
“When we started doing this, we realized that if we didn’t have a good product, families wouldn’t come. The stakes changed,” Hupe said. “You couldn’t just have community members or local chamber members shooting off fireworks. So we made the commitment to maintain local control and produce a quality show.”
It’s been compared to Disney World and the fireworks shows seen on the East and West coasts, Hupe said. The Wamego show is three-dimensional with 360-degree rings and “big stuff going up the middle and above and below. It’s not some show shot off a barge or dam a mile off. It is right there and set to music.”
All in keeping with how Kansas July Fourth celebrations have always been observed.
“The roar of our artillery and rifle platoons resounded from every hill, while the rumbling of the drum and the shrill whistle of the fife, imparted a degree of martial interest to the scene which was well calculated to stir the souls of men,” Josiah Gregg wrote in “Commerce of the Prairies,” published in 1844, about his caravan’s travels along the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas. “There was no limit to the huzzas ... of our people; and at every new shout the dales around sent forth a gladsome response.”