A Lonsdale tradition explodes into the night sky Wednesday, July 3 in celebration of Independence Day, but as of now, there are no plans to continue the local fireworks display for the future.
The Freedom Fireworks Committee, which developed less than five years ago to fundraise for the annual show, has disbanded.
“Maybe it will strike somebody’s interest down the road,” said Nicole Smith, who leads the Freedom Fireworks Committee for the last time this year. “… It’s hard to say what’s going to happmen. I would love to see it continue.”
Smith began helping with the Lonsdale fireworks at age 18 with her dad, Jeff Smisek, who passed responsibilities to Smith after he retired from the Lonsdale Fire Department last year. Smisek said he’s sad to see the tradition end, but he understands.
“When things change in a person’s life you have to change with it,” he said. “I’m going to miss doing it; I already do. And I know my daughter was choked up when she told me this was the last year.”
Smith plans to go back to school, and knowing firsthand the intense responsibility and time commitment that comes with leading the Freedom Fireworks Committee led her to make the tough choice. In addition, she said other members of the Freedom Fireworks Committee want to focus their time and attention on their families and other obligations.
“You actually start thinking about [the fireworks] in January and don’t stop thinking about it until July 6,” said Smith. “It’s a big responsibility. It’s not just for anybody.”
Smisek agreed that it’s a lot of work to put on a fireworks display of Lonsdale’s caliber, and it’s not a job for just one, or even three, volunteers. Instead, it requires the efforts of a whole team.
“It takes guts and it takes commitment,” said Smisek, who added with a laugh, “It can be stressful when there’s a lot of people depending on you.”
In the early 2000s, Smisek took over responsibilities from Jim Kodada, who showed him the ropes. From that point forward, Smisek was in charge of organizing the shoot crew and ordering the fireworks.
While Smisek described being on the front level shooting off the shells as “quite the rush,” his reasons for committing to the annual display ran deeper. The son of a retired Marine, Smisek initially became involved with the fireworks as a way of showing respect to veterans.
“It’s not just for the spectators,” said Smisek. “We’ve got to do something for our veterans and for our active personnel to show we care. I thought this was a fitting way to keep the tradition alive and be involved. To show what [vets] did and sacrificed so I could have my freedom, that takes the cake for everything.”
Contrary to popular belief, Smisek said it wasn’t the Lonsdale Fire Department that set off the fireworks for many years. Instead, it was a team of both fire squad and non-squad members who made up the shooting crew. The Fire Department supervised the action for extra protection in case of injuries or accidents.
Smisek is proud to say none of his crew members were ever injured while launching the fireworks.
“I was thankful for them to be there and take it seriously,” said Smisek. “I couldn’t be more proud of the people on my crew.”
Apart from the launch crew, donations from area businesses and community members helped make the fireworks possible every year. Additional volunteers raised between $6,000 to $8,000 for the program. In particular, the Freedom Fireworks Fish Fry during Lent raised a large portion of the money used to fund the fireworks.
“A couple years we ran out of fish because the crowd was so large,” said Smisek. “We had to go outside the Legion and apologize. That support was just tremendous.”
With the discontinuation of the Freedom Fireworks Committee comes the question, what happens next? What would it take for someone new to take over the responsibilities?
Not in favor of using taxpayer money to fund the fireworks, Mayor Tim Rud said there’s “no appetite to participate in the cost” from the city’s perspective. The city would, he said, support volunteers’ efforts however it can.
Smisek said in his experience, he needed to obtain his pyrotechnic license from the Minnesota fire marshal, obtain permits through the city and county, set up insurance and send the state fire marshal a list of the work crew members for inspection. He also took off work the week of Independence Day to sort the shells and clean up afterward. For many years, he also launched the fireworks in Veseli. Essentially that meant devoting his entire holiday to the fireworks.
Driving his motivation, Smisek received overall positive feedback for the fireworks throughout the year. Although he recalls a complaint from one woman, who said she couldn’t see the sky display because a tree blocked her view.
Laughing about the story, Smisek said, “If that’s the only complaint I’m going to hear about, then I think we did something pretty good.”