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Pyro Nation: In the Midlands and Beyond, Fireworks Still Fascinate

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John W. Casey is pretty calm for a man who is hip-deep in explosives.

When Free Times recently stopped by Casey’s Fireworks on Rosewood Drive, Casey was hard at work, a boonie hat on his head and sweat popping off of him on a blisteringly hot June day.

Casey, the third-generation owner of the store that was founded by his grandfather, is ripping open boxes and stocking shelves in a matter-of-fact, business-as-usual sort of way. But take a look around the inside of his store and you’ll quickly realize you’ve entered a unique world.

The place is packed from floor to ceiling with all manner of fireworks, big and small. The vibrant, garish colors of the packages of various rockets and mortars and “cakes” (big boxes containing multiple shots ignited by a single fuse) blend into a sort of psychedelic tapestry stretching across the store.

The first thing you notice are those colors. The second thing you notice are the names of the various pyrotechnics: Nuclear Destruction. Hydrogen Bomb. Foreign Policy Maker. Lead Poisoning. Angry Beaver. They are names that serve as both a come-on to the consumer, and a promise: “Buy me, and you can make a lot of damn racket.”

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John W. Casey is the owner of Casey’s Fireworks on Rosewood Drive. The store was started by his grandfather, Jim Casey.

For Casey, steady at work stocking those shelves, this is prime time. The week leading up to July 4 is his busiest season of the year, perhaps rivaled only by New Year’s.

And as he braces for Independence Day, Casey says he thinks 2018 could be one of the biggest years in recent memory. To hear him tell it, customers have already been coming into his store — which is open year-round — for quite a while, specifically in anticipation of July 4.

“The weekend before the Fourth and the week of July 4, that’s the time,” Casey says. “But there are people who will buy the really big packages — they’ll spend thousands of dollars — they’ve been coming in for two or three months now. I’ve never seen them come this early before. I think there’s a degree of celebration that hasn’t happened in four or five years.”

The continuing popularity of fireworks is intriguing. After all, we live in an era of seemingly endless entertainment options, all of them competing for our eyes and dollars: sporting events and concerts in stadiums and arenas with all the bells and whistles; movies crafted with cutting edge technology and shown in increasingly luxurious theaters; hundreds of TV channels and scores of streaming services delivering untold programs to us at the touch of a button.

And yet, despite it all, there are moments — particularly around certain holidays, but other times, too — where we simply want to look to the sky and watch something explode.

“There’s an awe about it,” Casey tells Free Times, with a starry look in his eyes. “I think it’s a primal thing, where there’s something about fire that fascinates people. We gather around the hearth in winter time, or there’s a fire at night. There’s something about the flicker of flames and the color and the feeling of warmth. … But there’s an ‘ooh’ and an ‘ah,’ too. It’s like a roller coaster, but everybody can get on the roller coaster and ride it. You don’t have to be afraid of heights or whatever. “

Whether it’s a “primal” thing or not, one thing is certain: Fireworks are big business.

According to a 2016 piece in USA Today, Americans go through about 285 million pounds of fireworks each year. That’s 260 million pounds used by everyday citizens — Casey calls them “backyard heroes” — and another 25 million used in professional fireworks shows, like the ones the Columbia Fireflies and Lexington County Blowfish have after Friday and Saturday night home games.

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Total revenue for the fireworks industry tops $1 billion annually, with about 75 percent of that coming from consumer sales.

During the summer in South Carolina — and certainly in the Midlands — fireworks are sort of a way of life. Industry sources note the Palmetto State is one of the least restrictive states in the nation in regard to pyrotechnics, with stores allowed to peddle them all year long and with very few items being strictly prohibited. However, the American Pyrotechnics Association does note that “small rockets” — the mini bottle rockets that you likely used to shoot at your friends when you were a kid — are banned in South Carolina, as they are in most states.

There’s one other key regulation here: You have to be at least 16 to purchase fireworks in South Carolina, and the National Council on Fireworks Safety notes that adults should supervise all fireworks activity. As noted in the aforementioned USA Today piece, 67 percent of all fireworks related injuries in the country happen within a month of July 4, and about seven people die in fireworks-related incidents each year.

Whether you visit year-round vendors like Casey’s, or frequent one of the many roadside fireworks stands that pop up across the Southern landscape this time of year, or take in one of the professional pyrotechnic shows that seem to happen weekly in the area, the chance to see something explode is seemingly ever-present in the Midlands.

‘I’ve Got Gunpowder in My Blood’

When it comes to selling consumer fireworks in the Midlands, you’ll find it’s often a family affair.

That’s certainly the case over in Lexington County, where Cameron Neal owns and operates Discount Fireworks, and has a network of nine roadside stands sprinkled throughout the county. Seeing Neal’s stands pop up over in Lexington is as much of a July 4 tradition as grilling out or going to the lake. It’s simply a part of summer in the county just west of Columbia.

Neal got his start in the fireworks business courtesy of his father, the late Carl Neal. Carl opened a single fireworks stand on a then-quiet stretch of U.S. 378 (a section of road that is today, 49 years later, jammed with commerce and traffic) back in 1970, and enlisted his son’s help in running the business.

“I kind of worked with him as a kid,” Cameron Neal says. “I worked through high school and when I was in college. You know in high school you are out during the summer and you are out for Christmas, so that was extra money. And I worked it during Christmas and New Year’s when I was in college. I ran it for him. In 1987-88 I bought the one that he had. … But he taught me the fireworks business.”

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Discount Fireworks’ Cameron Neal runs nine fireworks stands, including this one, in Lexington County.

Over the last three decades, Neal has expanded the business, growing from the single stand to the nine he has today. And it’s still a family enterprise: His two sons and his wife help him work the stands, and his mother, aunt, sister and other relatives have helped sling fireworks through the years.

While he loves the fireworks business, Neal admits there have been sacrifices, particularly at the holidays.

“We lived in Gilbert, born and raised,” Neal says. “I never went to the [town’s annual July 4] Peach Festival, because I worked in the fireworks stand.”

When asked why he thinks, with all of the entertainment options at their disposal, people still line up each summer at his roadside stands to purchase things they can blow up, Neal is succinct: It’s just tradition.

And, he says, it’s a tradition that, more and more, families are choosing to enjoy together in loosely organized neighborhood shows.

“A lot of times we’ll see subdivisions get three or four families together and they’ll come out and spend 200 or 300 bucks and enjoy those fireworks together,” Neal tells Free Times. “It used to be that 25 or 50 bucks was a good sale. Now the average person will spend 80 to 100 bucks.

“People will have cookouts and get-togethers and invite people and they’ll pool their money and buy a large amount of fireworks, which they wouldn’t normally be able to do if there was just one of them.”

The idea of the July 4 neighborhood fireworks show is familiar to Casey, too. As he goes about stocking the shelves at his Rosewood Drive store, he talks about the steps he takes to help people get ready for the holiday. Part of that includes putting labels with QR codes next to all the fireworks, where customers or employees can scan the codes with their smartphones to bring up a video showing exactly what kind of explosion a given firework will produce.

Casey says he’ll also help citizens plan their shows upon request, numbering the individual firework boxes to help folks shoot them in an order that builds to a crescendo.

He says some customers relish the idea of being the neighborhood “fireworks guy.”

“There’s just something about the backyard hero,” Casey says. “You know how there are people who are the neighborhood Santa Claus or the Easter bunny or their neighborhood spokesperson? There are people who are patriarchs of the [fireworks] for their neighborhood. And everybody knows who they are.”

Much like with Neal and his roadside stands in Lexington, Casey’s Fireworks is a generational family business.

Jim Casey, John W. Casey’s granddad, opened the Rosewood spot back in 1949 as an open-air market that sold various items, including fireworks. The pyrotechnics grew in prominence over time, and in the 1950s Jim Casey spearheaded an effort to keep fireworks legal in South Carolina, ultimately prevailing in a state Supreme Court decision. Later, Jim’s son, Jack, ran the business.

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John M. Casey is a fourth generation family member to work at Rosewood Drive’s Casey’s Fireworks.

And now that John W. Casey is running things, his 28-year-old son John M. Casey — a fourth generation of Casey firework men — is helping out around the store. He was manning a counter the day Free Times recently visited.

“As soon as I could walk I was shooting little firecrackers,” John M. Casey says, with a small laugh. “Before I could walk I was crawling around the firecracker bins, around the Black Cats. I’ve got gunpowder in my blood, pretty much.”

‘I just think it is part of America.’

While folks like the Caseys and the Neals are busy selling fireworks to various “backyard heroes” and other amateur pyros, there are those who prefer to leave the work of shooting them to the professionals.

And if you want to see a professional show in the Midlands, you’ve got ample opportunities.

There are, of course, fireworks shows that are directly tied to the Independence Day holiday. The Lake Murray Independence Day fireworks extravaganza, a three-decade tradition, is set for June 30 this year, with fireworks being shot at dusk from Dreher Island State Park and Spence Island. The Lexington County Peach Festival in Gilbert will culminate on July 4 with a fireworks blowout.

And then there are the area’s two main summer baseball teams — the Class A Columbia Fireflies and Coastal Plain League’s Lexington County Blowfish — which each have extensive fireworks shows after every Friday and Saturday night home game. The Blowfish also are planning fireworks after the weeknight games on Tuesday, July 3 and Wednesday, July 4, and the Fireflies will shoot them after their game on July 4.

Fireflies President John Katz tells Free Times that fireworks are an essential promotion in minor league baseball. Over the course of his more than a quarter-century working in baseball front offices, Katz has seen just about every kind of promotional night under the sun come into fashion, then fade away. But fireworks have remained a bedrock of almost every minor league team’s planning.

“It’s one of those enduring promotions that seems to always work,” he says. “I’ve seen fads come and go, whether it was Webkinz or bobbleheads or what have you. But, really, for as long as I’ve been doing this, fireworks are the one thing that is the great equalizer.”

Katz says the popularity of the fireworks shows at Spirit Communications Park actually spurred the team to move its Saturday night game times up from 7 p.m. to 6 p.m., so that more families with young children can hang around to see the explosions after the final out.

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Fireworks above the Columbia Fireflies’ Spirit Communications Park on June 22, 2018.

And then there are the Blowfish. The collegiate wood-bat squad formerly played in Columbia, at historic Capital City Stadium, and was known widely — especially in the nearby Rosewood neighborhood — for its long, booming fireworks shows. The team is now in its fourth season at Lexington County Baseball Stadium on Ballpark Road, and is carrying on its explosive tradition. On summer weekends, the Blowfish detonate enough fireworks to blow open a mine.

Bill Shanahan is the owner of the Blowfish, and has been in the baseball business for almost 35 years. A tireless promoter — he can be spotted at just about every Blowfish game, working the crowd along the concourse up behind home plate — Shanahan says fireworks are a “really important” part of the team’s plans as it maps out the summer. The Blowfish contract with a local company — Lexington’s Munnerlyn Pyrotechnics — to put on the weekend spectaculars.

But Shanahan concedes that things are changing just a bit. Noting that even an old stalwart promotion like fireworks needs to be freshened up, the team now bills its postgame pyrotechnics as a “Concert in the Sky” and incorporates the shows with the greater theme of a given night at the ballpark. For example, on a recent Disney Night at the stadium — one which featured a princess parade filled with scores of girls dressed as various Cinderellas and Elsas and Moanas — the fireworks show that ended the evening was set to Disney tunes.

Shanahan says it’s part of a strategy to send fans out of the gate happy at the end of the night.

“When someone leaves a ballpark, we want them to have had a good time,” the Blowfish owner says. “Whether we have won or lost is not as important as whether that family had fun. What better way to close out a night?”

Back on Rosewood Drive, the idea of fireworks as a family uniter isn’t lost on John W. Casey. While there are bundles of fireworks at Casey’s that are quite expensive — a massive package called Night of the Grizzly costs $1,000 — there are items that are as low as 99 cents.

“You know, if you have a $20 budget, we can show you some pretty amazing fireworks for 20 bucks that you’ll be really impressed with,” he says. “The best thing is getting kids out from in front of their video games and having them put their phone down and be outside. How do we get grandparents and grandkids together with something that keeps them entertained? Fireworks.”

Fireworks have been part of America’s fabric since the country’s beginning — founding father John Adams wrote in 1776 that the nation’s independence ought to be marked with, among other things, “bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

While pyrotechnics have endured throughout the centuries, and have survived the advent of numerous other more technologically advanced forms of entertainment, one still wonders how long we will continue to be fascinated.

Free Times asks Casey if he thinks people will still be lining up at stores like his, and at roadside stands and professional shows, in 10 or 20 years. He pauses for a moment, adjusting his boonie hat as he gives it some thought.

“Yeah,” he says, with a little smile and shrug. “I just think it is part of America.”


The Name Game

If you walk into a fireworks store — like Casey’s Fireworks, which has been slinging pyrotechnics for nearly 70 years on Rosewood Drive — one of the first things you’ll notice is the sometimes irreverent, sometimes seemingly random, and often over-the-top names of the items being offered. Here’s a list of some of firework names we spotted during a recent visit to Casey’s. — Chris Trainor

Nuclear Destruction

Migraine

Whacky Tobacky

Hydrogen Bomb

Terrorist Killer

Triad

Excalibur

All In

No B.S.

Merlin

Loyal to None

Sexy Girl

Gone Bananas

Chicken on a Chain

Evil Clown

Night of the Grizzly

Don’t Mine If I Do

Lead Poisoning

Zombie Nation

Blackmail

Angry Beaver

Mr. Merlot

Open Grave

Bad Habit

Knockout Brocade

Angel’s Kiss

Executioner

The Coconut Tree

Hell Fire

Uncle Sam’s Answer

Bomb Bastic

Foreign Policy Maker 

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