Independence Day in Bentonville

By Larry Horton

I thought I didn’t have much to say about the 4th in our little town until I was watching the fireworks at nearby Bella Vista and the beautiful display brought back some good memories of 4th of July in Bentonville.

As you may remember from history class, the Declaration of Independence was signed on the 4th of July, 1776. Although this is not really the case. It was ratified by the Second Continental Congress on July 4th; Independence was officially declared on July 2nd. It wasn’t signed until August 2nd and even then a few of the delegates didn’t sign. Two of them never signed it at all.

The United States as a whole has celebrated July 4th as the date of Independence, promulgation or presentation, to the people was on that date, when it was first read to the citizens. Towns have been celebrating ever since. The first public fireworks have been celebration of Independence day was in Philadephia on July 4th, 1777. The following is from an article found online by Slate:

The Pennsylvania Evening Post wrote that in Philadelphia, “The evening was closed with the ring of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.” The paper noted that “Everything was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.” That same year, fireworks also lit up the sky in Boston, where they were exhibited by Col. Thomas Crafts over the common. By 1783 a large variety of fireworks were available to the public. In 1784 one merchant offered a range of pyrotechnics that included “rockets, serpents, wheels, table rockets, cherry trees, fountains, and sun flowers.”

Bentonville has been no exception. As fireworks became more readily available in rural areas such as ours, fireworks celebrations have become more prevalent.

For fifty years the fireworks show was in the capable hands of the Bentonville Fire Department, and from that comes my memories. The show was held at the old ball park which sat along SW 8th street at SW A. Long covered by Wal-Mart parking lots, it was where the town turned out for a show. My participation began when I was a child and hung around with the firemen as they went about their business. Later when I became a fireman, I became part of the in-depth process of setting up a show.

Large fireworks are not unlike military cannons. Some of the firefighters also served with the National Guard in the 142nd Arkansas Field Artillery 1st Battalion Battery A. The fireworks show was second nature to them I’m sure, and the procedures for firing were not unlike live artillery fire.

The fireworks “shells”, as they are called, were ordered early in the year and arrived a couple of weeks before the 4th. In the old days they weren’t computer-fired like they are now. Each had a long fuse that came out of the bottom and wrapped along-side the shell, extending about 12” away from it. There were sizes ranging from 3” all the way up to a massive 8” shell. To put that into perspective, a 3” shell is about the size of a baseball and an 8” shell is about as big as Mr. Coffee pot. Different sizes have different amounts of powder, so the bigger the diameter, the farther it goes. A 3” shell goes about 400 feet high and has a radius of 125 feet. An 8” shell goes 950 feet high with a 400 foot radius. We had hand-made mortars similar to an artillery mortar, made of solid steel and capped at the bottom. The mortar was placed in a box and then sand was packed around it to keep it from moving. Once it was time for the show, the shell was dropped in with the fuse left hanging out. This was lit by hand, with a road flare which was secured to a long stick. Sounds like country fun, huh?

Different people had different roles. Some loaded, some lit the fuse, some carried the shots to the tube for the loader, somebody had to be able to put the fires out that sprang up among the boxes in the dry July grass. “Fire in the hole!” was the cry, and when you heard it, you’d better move.

It was dangerous and exciting at the same time. Some years it seemed that we would get fireworks that weren’t packed well and we would get a “dud.” Sometimes the fuse would burn all the way down to the bottom and stop. All waited to see what would happen. After a short while, another shell would be dropped on top of the first and lit, in hopes that the dud would fire. Another type of dud was one in which the shell would rise too slowly out of the mortar and explode mere feet off the ground. Talk about a jarring experience! The noise, the explosions, and the smell of gunpowder was as close as many of us would ever get to an actual battle.

Another 4th has come and gone. Fireworks were taken away from the fire department and contracted out to professional pyrotechnic companies in the early 2000’s. Everything is set up and wired and computerized, taking all the “fun” out of firing them. The viewing public gets a better show, more synchronized and polished. But there was a home-town quality back then, when the firemen, most of whom were local businessmen, would, with a loud “fire in the hole!”, put on a show for the town.