New Canaan will celebrate the Fourth of July on Sunday with old-fashioned picnics and fireworks at Waveny Park, all in keeping with a tradition that goes back to at least 1818.
"It's a simple, fun event with family picnics, comaraderie and 35 minutes of painting the sky with foreworks," said Steve Benko, recreation director, who serves on the Family Fourth Committee. This is the 30th anniversary year of the "Family Fourth" and he's been working on it since last July 4.
Some surrounding towns (including Stamford and Norwalk) have eliminated fireworks for the 4th because of budgetary constraints, but not New Canaan.
The $30 per-car fee ($60 for out-of-towners) will cover the costs and if it doesn't, longtime Committee member and perennial town fundraiser Ted Winpenny will surely see to it that the costs are covered. (Last year, all but $4,000 in costs were covered by $57,000 in sales of passes, ice cream, soda and glow-in-the-dark plastic jewelry. Donations and business sp0nsorships made up the difference.)
Benko, Winpenny and Joe Toppin (retired Recreation Director) got together on Monday to talk with Patch about New Canaan's 4th of July celebrations of years past and what's in store for 2010.
New Canaan takes its 4th of July traditions very seriously, all agreed.
"One year, we scheduled the fireworks on the 3rd because Waveny had been booked for another event," Benko said. "We were killed" by adverse reactions to the departure from tradition, he said.
Irate New Canaanites fired off letters to the editor and made the committee members say they felt they had been nothing less than unpatriotic.
"We'll never do that again," assured Winpenny.
This year's celebrations begin at 5 p.m., when the gates open to pass-bearing cars.
The sloping lawns of Waveny will fill with an estimated 8,000 celebrants, an ideal number, said Benko. There will be games and giant inflatables for the children. Officially, there's a no-alcohol policy.
As darkness falls, International Fireworks of Douglassville, PA, will take over.
"Their philosophy is: During a fireworks display, the sky should never be dark," said Benko.
Thus, as one explosion of color and light is bursting overhead, another is set to erupt.
"The finale is always spectacular," said Winpenny, 87, who will be joined by friends at the festivities.
Unfortunately, the colorful hot-air balloons and skydivers alighting dramatically from overflying aircraft that once delighted the crowds are a thing of the past.
The Federal Aviation Administration has so restricted the airspace that it became too complicated to have the skydivers, Benko explained.
As for the hot-air balloons, they're an indirect victim of tightening government regulation. A minimum distance of 400 feet had to be maintained in the past between fireworks equipment and the crowd; that distance is now 1,000 feet, intruding into the area which had been used by the hot-air balloons.
Winpenny's eyes light up as he recalls the one chance he had to "ride" a hot-air balloon at a Family Fourth event.
"I got aboard with two kids and we went up about 20 yards while tethered to the ground," he said with boyish wonder. "The certified pilot went up with us and we could see everything."
Today's July 4th celebrations are far tamer than is years past.
"One year we had over 14,000 people and it was excessive," Benko recalled. "There was no place to step and a police officer was injured directing traffic, which was chaotic."
"Other than that, the celebrations have been without untoward incident," he said.
But back in 1818, an explosion of unrecorded origin killed one celebrant and injured several others, according to newspaper archives maintained by the New Canaan Historical Society and shared by its director, Janet Lindstrom.
It was not uncommon for revelers to bring firearms to the festivities -- to dangerous end. In 1877, a boy lost a finger when a firearm discharged. Fourteen years later, a spectator was shot in the arm when a pistol was accidentally discharged.
In 1884, it was written that there were "more young men seen drunk than ever before on a similar occasion" and "the night was made hideous with howls and profanity."
In 1899, a large cannon was fired off only to misfire and explode later. No was seriously injured.
In 1952, New Canaan officially banned the use and sale of fireworks. When the ban was lifted in 1957, American Legion Post 30 sponsored fireworks displays in Kiwanis Park until 1972. There were no public fireworks displays in 1973 because of a lack of public financial support.
The biggest 4th of July celebration to date in New Canaan took place in 1976, the nation's bicentennial, which drew an estimated 14,000 people.
Then-First Selectman Charles Morton appointed a Family Fourth Committee in 1980 to assure that town-run 4th of July celebrations would be an annual event.
For 30 years running, the Committee has delighted all ages by keeping the tradition alive.