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Sherri Richards, Published July 02 2009

Blasts from the past

Fireworks keep getting bigger and flashier, but some of the simplest are among the most requested.

Nostalgia for long-gone Fourths keeps customers asking for firecrackers, bottle rockets, smoke bombs and sparklers.

“Parachutes, that’s one of everybody’s favorites,” says Brad Schmitz, owner and operator of Black Powder Fireworks, headquartered in West Fargo. “Kids love to chase them around.”

Others on the classics list: the whistling Saturn Missile Battery, jumping jacks, tanks and ash worms.

“The parents don’t like those (ash worms) because they leave a big stain in the driveway,” Schmitz says.

But memories of how fun those fireworks were each summer keep them popular.

“It brings people back to their childhood, I think,” Schmitz says. “When they remember what they did as a kid, they want their kids to have the same experiences.”

Johnny Starr, owner of Starr Fireworks in Horace, N.D., says people most often buy bottle rockets and Black Cat bricks of firecrackers because they remember them from childhood.

One wall of his business features enlarged prints of old firecracker labels. It draws a lot of eyes, and a lot of reminiscing, he says.

Ron Knutson, former owner of TNT Fireworks and now a manager with Memory Fireworks, says firecrackers and bottle rockets top the nostalgia list because the overall selection was limited, and they were cheap enough for kids to afford.

In 1980, when he started in the fireworks business, firecrackers and bottle rockets made up 25 percent of sales. Now it’s maybe 5 percent.

“We still sell a lot of them, but there have just been so many improvements and changes and new items that have come out,” Knutson says.

Some old standards have evolved with the times. Schmitz sells a multi-shot parachute that releases 100 in the air at once. Ash worms glow in the dark or burn in different colors. Sparklers are safer with bamboo sticks.

A lot of the nostalgic favorites aren’t even technically fireworks, like the ash worms, snap-pop noisemakers and smoke bombs.

“That is probably the No. 1 item people come in to look for. I don’t know what it is about smoke bombs,” Schmitz says.

Starr says a lot of the novelty favorites are getting harder to find. He travels to China for six weeks each fall.

“Every factory in China now just wants to make the big 500-gram multi-shot repeaters,” Starr says. They’re easier to make, and because they’re pricier, factories can make fewer and get the same profit, Starr says.

Perhaps the epitome of old-school explosives, bottle rockets will be illegal to sell in North Dakota after Aug. 1.

Jane Breyer, general manager of Generous Jerry’s Fireworks, gets a lot of requests for fireworks that have been illegal for decades.

“I think one in every three customers that walk through my door ask for cherry bombs, silver salutes and M-80s,” Breyer says.

These requests annoy Breyer. Notes on the door say they don’t sell illegal fireworks.

“If I had a nickel for every time they ask this I’d be wealthy and retired,” she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556