SOLSBERRY, Ind. — About 15 miles southwest of Bloomington down windy county roads, cars, pickup trucks and ATVs lined the ditches before a small green sign marking the Solsberry city limits.
Once inside the community of only a few hundred people, congestion increased. On the warm Tuesday evening, the grass was brown and the crowd was thick.
From the young to the elderly, locals and out-of-towners waited in lawn chairs on every yard near Eastern Volunteer Fire Department.
At the fire department itself, thousands more congregated.
Sitting inside his car’s open trunk, a man held a Bud Light above his head and sang along to the live country music. Then, as the first blast lit up the dark, clear sky, he emitted a gasp of excitement.
Twenty years ago, Fire Chief Rob Johnson of Eastern Volunteer Fire Department organized the first Solsberry Fireworks Show. His budget for the show was $400, all of which was donated by volunteer firefighters.
Two decades later, the annual budget has increased to $10,000, which allows for a show lasting 30 to 40 minutes. All necessary funds required this year were donated by 75 local businesses and residents.
“That involves calling each individual business and personal people,” said Autumn Johnson, Rob Johnson’s wife, who handles finances for the annual display.
“The economy is getting a little bit worse each year, but right now they’re doing pretty decent on me. I’ve had a lot of people still donate, but they’ve backed their donations off.”
He said he considered cancelling the Solsberry Fireworks Show.
But he decided to continue the show as scheduled after talking with other members of the fire department, as well as former firefighter and Solsberry Township Trustee Larry Shute, who donated the open field behind the fire department as a launching spot for the fireworks each year.
But extra precautions were taken to minimize the risk of fire.
“I’ll tell you the fire danger level at this time would be somewhat moderate, but we’ve been pretty aggressive with our fire prevention this year at our fireworks show,” firefighter Aaron Norris said before the show.
“Once we checked the conditions and came up with a strategy for how we were going to approach today, we pretty much went ahead with it. There was no concern about a fire being so big that we couldn’t control it.”
Along with watering the surrounding area several times throughout the day, Norris said neighboring fire departments assisted with off-road vehicles and brush trucks.
Through the show, several fireworks ignited prematurely. One made firefighters below the explosion run for cover. With others, flames landed on thick tree canopies.
But despite the worries, there were no fires.
Throughout the show, light from the repeated blasts reflected off the faces of spectators sitting in lawn chairs, gazing up at the sky.
Children ran in circles with flashing light sabers or gnawed on ears of corn. A shock wave could be felt from the explosions overhead.
Each shot is fired off by the volunteer firefighters, rather than by a machine, and the Sugar Shack concessions stand is small, but spectators swear the Solsberry Fireworks Show is the best in the area.
For these reasons, thousands of spectators have flocked to the small community for years.
Glen Whittenberger, 68, said he has been attending the fireworks show in Solsberry since it began 20 years ago.
“Actually it hasn’t changed much, but they’ll throw in some new stuff like the rings and ovals and stuff like that,” Whittenberger said. “It’s always been a pretty decent show, I always thought.”
For others, Tuesday’s fireworks show was a first, but likely not a last. Ty Stogsdill has attended the fireworks show in Solsberry for six or seven years, he said, but never with his 1-year-old son Colton Stogsdill.
“We see a lot of family and friends here, people we don’t normally see all the time,” Ty Stogsdill said. “We go to Bloomington’s too, and Bloomington’s isn’t as good as the one here. I think it’s a better show. It’s more laid back, it seems like.”
The show is not only the largest event for Eastern Fire Department every year: it’s the largest event in town. So firefighter Ryan Starks said it is important for the event to be exceptional.
“They’re all hand-shot, they’re not electronically fired,” Starks said.
“I don’t know if it’s more enjoyable for the audience, but I would like to think so because it’s actually people shooting them off. It’s not a machine or music or anything like that, it’s actually the firefighters shooting them off as we celebrate the Fourth of July and to say ‘thank you’ to the community.”