The night sky above Excelsior on the Fourth of July this weekend won’t be ablaze with rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air. For one of the few times in more than a century, the biggest and possibly oldest Independence Day fireworks show on Lake Minnetonka won’t be held.
The decision to cancel the annual celebration was made in early May for lack of funding, said Jen Weiss, membership and marketing director for the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event.
Annual community events that typically raise money for the fireworks were canceled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and local businesses that typically chip in have been struggling for the same reason.
Organizers also became concerned the show would breach COVID restrictions, though that wasn’t the original reason to cancel. It typically attracts tens of thousands of viewers on shore or in boats on the lake. Anyone who has tried to elbow through the throngs of spectators in the Commons, the city’s 13-acre lakeside park, or seen boats crammed stem to stern in Excelsior Bay can understand why the event would be problematic.
The bill for the event can reach $100,000, said Laura Hotvet, the chamber’s executive director. It includes not just fireworks but races, parades and live music, all of which have been canceled. About a quarter of the bill pays for the fireworks; other costs include security, insurance, restroom maintenance and garbage disposal.
City officials earlier this month denied an application by a pyrotechnics company to put on a show because of short notice and likely infractions of state COVID-19 restrictions. The South Lake Minnetonka Police Department also rejected the application.
Minneapolis and other cities have canceled fireworks this year, though a few such as Chaska and Chanhassen still plan to shoot them off. But cancellation of the Excelsior show is especially disappointing for locals whose families have attended for generations.
Kids mesmerized years ago by the glittering display now bring their own children. Lori Day Harty of Crystal said that she and her brothers would boat to Excelsior Bay to see the show in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
“It was a much more interesting perspective, laying on our backs in the boat, watching the fireworks explode directly over us with the stars in the night sky as a backdrop,” she said.
Early settlers’ diaries indicate that Excelsior has hosted Fourth of July celebrations since 1854, the year after the city was founded, said Lisa Stevens, a volunteer with the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society. They featured games, picnics and dances but not necessarily pyrotechnics.
Combing through old newspapers, Stevens found 12 mentions of Excelsior fireworks between 1871 and 1923.
“But I could only scratch the surface,” she said. “I’m betting that they were held every year that they had enough money to do them.”
A promotion in 1912 promised fireworks and an event “that will eclipse all others.”
Compared with contemporary extravaganzas, early 20th-century fireworks were probably modest and brief, allowing people to catch trains home afterward, Stevens said. In 1913, the fireworks were rained out but “merrymakers were not dismayed,” according to a newspaper report — most went to the local casino and danced until midnight.
Thunderstorms forced a last-minute cancellation in 1995, said Terry Roeser, who was president of the Chamber of Commerce and chaired the event. Lightning kept organizers from loading the fireworks onto a metal barge, so around 7 p.m. they reluctantly called it off. Two hours later, the skies cleared and the Commons park started filling with eager spectators.
They rescheduled the event for later in July but “it was not a good situation,” Roeser said. “The voice mail comments were pretty awful. ... I would not allow our secretary to listen to them.”
Convenient as it is to live within walking distance of the popular show, not all Excelsior residents love having their streets packed with cars, Stevens said.
“Many Excelsiorites wish they didn’t have to give their city up to the world every Fourth, so I’ll be interested to see if they welcome the respite,” she said.
And few attendees likely will miss the evening’s traditional finale, a traffic jam that crawls through commercial and residential streets toward Hwys. 7 or 19 until the early morning hours. But Dustin Solmonson of Shorewood said that’s when part of his family’s annual tradition happens.
“We will sit on our front porch and watch the traffic parade trying to get out of the area for hours afterwards,” he said.