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Key volunteers look to pass the torch

Staff writer

This year’s Fourth Fest celebration in Peabody marks 97 years that Peabody has been home to one of the state’s biggest firework displays.

Behind the evolution of what the Fourth Fest looks like now, the celebration has always relied solely on the support of volunteers.

Weeks of preparation, gallons of sweat, and decades of community pride are what lie behind the hundreds, or even thousands, of people making their way annually to a ZIP code, that otherwise may remain a fleeting small town off the highway.

Among the volunteers who have sacrificed their time the last several years, or even decades, are a few key players who want to pass the torch of some of their duties at the conclusion of this year.

Brian and Alisa McDowell will no longer be able to play as vital a role as they have. They recently moved to Denton, Texas to follow Brian’s job working with Mueller Systems.

Alisa began working on preparations for July 4 in 1988, and Brian began in 1994.

“I moved to Peabody July 3, 1993,” he said. “The next day, everyone was telling me about the fireworks, and I thought, ‘I’ve seen fireworks all my life, but I might as well go down there.

“When it was over I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I was approached the next spring to come help work on set pieces and doing things like sticking lances on nails.”

Lances are the colored parts that are lit on ground displays and are nailed down to the set piece, similar to small flares, and used to construct pictures.

Pete and Lisa Hodges also began their volunteer work building set pieces almost 30 years ago. While they’re not looking to relinquish all their duties as volunteers, they are looking to break down their jobs and disperse several duties.

The duo is expecting their second grandchild in the next year. They also often help their elderly parents, making it more difficult to sacrifice as much of their time as they have in the past.

“We want to watch it with our grandkids,” Lisa said. “We’ll still help build set pieces, I like doing that. It’s hot, but it’s not that bad. The ground pieces are what our tradition is really about, and I’m happy to help with that. I’ll help steer or guide whoever takes over some of the other responsibilities, but I just don’t have the time or energy anymore.”

Lisa begins paperwork for licenses and kicks off abutton design contest in February and March. Things pick up slightly in April and May and get really busy in June.

“We work on Fourth stuff a little every day,” she said.

Lisa goes the night of the Third to set up appropriate fencing, and she and Pete arrive to the park as early as 7 a.m. the morning of the Fourth for when vendors start showing up, and to answer any last-minute questions. Their holiday isn’t concluded until around midnight, when they tie up loose ends.

To these volunteers, the long days may be tiring but are definitely worth it.

“Many hands will make for lighter work,” Pete said. “But the best part is when the lights come back on after the Battle of New Orleans (finale), the smoke is still clearing out, and people are on their feet clapping. It gives me goose bumps and brings tears to my eyes when the battle is over and everyone is still screaming and hollering.’”

His wife agreed.

“If everything went right, it’s the best feeling ever on the Fifth of July. It’s amazing, but it’s exhausting.”

The McDowells moved to McPherson in 2008 and returned to Peabody in 2012 but were able to remain active in Independence day preparations. Because they have moved farther this time, Brian, who announces the show along with Friday night home football games, said it is an emotional transition.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I’ll probably miss Friday night football games, and the Fourth of July the most. There’s no feeling like listening to the crowd when you light up a set piece.”

Brian and Alisa, who has drawn out new set piece designs for several years, have also enlisted the help of their daughters, Alex and Riley, to ensure the day goes smoothly.

“Both the girls help with picking out the music,” Brian said. “I make a tentative script and have all my girls read through and edit it. They help with keeping it humorous and also patriotic. The last few years Riley has been my mini me and helped keep me on task.”

While duties will be shuffled, and the smoke will soon dissipate after another year of Peabody’s Fourth of July extravaganza, the friendships and camaraderie of the Hodges, McDowells, and other predominant volunteers are as sure as a standing ovation after the Battle of New Orleans.

“They’re so good to work with, and all phenomenal,” volunteer Vonnie Gfeller said. “And you know they’ll never fire you.”

Another predominant volunteer, Erik Barnes, agreed.

“No matter how hot and tired we all got, they’re always fun to be around.”

Last modified June 27, 2018

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