Today, $100 buys enough fireworks for a family’s backyard display, but in 1940 it was enough money for Quintis “Jack” Whisler to start creating the annual Peabody fireworks spectacular seen by tens of thousands of people since then.
Little has been recorded about development of the shows or the individuals who created them, but a page from a family history book shared by Whisler’s daughter, Judy Mellott, gives Whisler’s own account of an event he created and expanded for more than 40 years.
In 1940, Peabody Chamber of Commerce offered Whisler $50 to take over the fireworks celebration previously overseen by the city.
“I thanked them for the evening and got up to leave,” he wrote. “George Higgins, the druggist, asked me how much I would need and I said I wouldn’t touch it for less than $100.”
It was not a small request; $100 in 1940 was the same as $1,700 today. They met again and Whisler told them what he could provide.
“I explained if they turned me loose and let me buy as I saw fit, and they not count rained-out celebrations, I would make the best fireworks shows in the country,” he said.
They agreed to that first $100 and each year he added $100 more to his budget until the number and variety of fireworks suited him.
In those early years, the show was advertised as the “Largest free fireworks show in Kansas.” No admission was charged, but donations were accepted at the gates. The Chamber board constantly worried they would lose money.
“We only got rained out one year,” he said, “and that year we cleared only $6 and got soaked.”
Whisler designed and built ground displays or set pieces and ordered aerial fireworks he thought would please the crowds. Peabody’s reputation grew as the place to be on Independence Day.
At the city’s 90th birthday celebration in 1961, Whisler noted the crowd was estimated at more than 40,000.
For the Peabody Centennial in 1971, Whisler had something special in mind for the largest anticipated crowd in Peabody’s history.
“We think that was the greatest pyrotechnic show anywhere,” he wrote. “We had set pieces and we fired more than 200 aerial bombs.”
Whisler designed and built the first Battle of New Orleans finale, orchestrated to the popular ballad of the same name by Johnny Horton.
That Battle of New Orleans incorporated more than 4,000 shots, 12 nine-inch bombs, 50 ten-ball candles, and 10 mortars all going off in less than three minutes.
The crowd went crazy and the “Battle” became a staple, ending the fireworks show in great style every year since then.
“I fired it all myself,” he wrote. “It was fast and very loud and I fired it in a low area so no one would get hurt.”
Whisler finally had a budget big enough to do just what he wanted, and he continued to do it until his last fireworks show in 1982.
Brian McDowell and Preston Hodges have created the show either together or singly for about 20 years. Erik Barnes stepped in to help several years ago. All three men are licensed and certified to receive, handle, and discharge the explosives.
They supervise volunteers who build set pieces and firing crews that fire them. Like Whisler, they try to add to the variety of set pieces and aerials each year.
They build 15 or 20 set pieces with patriotic themes such as the flag or military insignia, the high school Warrior head, or state college team mascots. They sometimes take special requests like marriage proposals. They also incorporate appropriate music into the show.
They still fire about 200 aerial bombs or mortars.
“Today we order pre-packaged cakes of explosives. Last year we used 31 cakes and this year we increased the order to 38 and that will give us about 7,000 explosions,” McDowell said. “And the “Battle” is still the finale.”
They design two cannon set pieces that point toward one another, each firing a stream of cannon balls when the music starts. The cannons are fired by a couple of crew members and the rest is done by remote.
Both Hodges and McDowell smiled at Whisler’s comment that in 1971 he fired everything in less than three minutes.
There are videos of the “Battle” that people have posted on the July 4 website that last anywhere from five to 15 minutes or so, depending on the year.
“That probably was a huge production that first time,” Hodges said.
“It was probably just as big a rush for Jack in 1971 as it is for us now when it starts and people begin to stand and clap and yell,” he added. “There is nothing like it.”