Long before today's professional firework launchings, many shot private displays funded by one or more residents. Due to cost, professional fireworks were rare. There wasn't even a professional show for the U.S. bicentennial. However, the next year, 1977, that all changed.
It was the year professionally launched fireworks lit the skies over the Portage Lakes. A brainchild of Harbor Inn owner, Glen Barensfeld, they were launched on West Reservoir near his restaurant, and was repeated the following year.
In 1979, however, Rick Case, Phil Rock and the Akron Coca Cola company joined Barensfeld in sponsoring a larger show. It was launched from the island in East Reservoir.
After that, no show occurred for several years, simply because no one had the time to organize or resources to guarantee its cost. Nevertheless, it was nearly impossible to cruise the lakes over the Fourth from 1980 to '84, without encountering fireworks.
Many of these displays, however, seemed like afterthoughts and were usually shot from front yards and financed by single homeowners along the more than 20 miles of home-owned shoreline. Now and then a group would pool their funds for a larger show, but they were nothing compared to the organized shows of the late seventies.
In 1985, all that changed. Funds for a much larger fireworks show were requested and the community responded. From that, the Portage Lakes took a giant step toward launching an annual, professional, fireworks display.
As part of the 10th annual Portage Lakes July Fourth Boat Parade in 1985, the Portage Lakes Community Council, with Glen Barensfeld as president, established an annual show. Underwritten by Barensfeld and other local businesses, the sum of $10,000 was raised and fireworks were professionally launched from the shores of Dusty's Landing.
That year, Dusty's owner RC Norris and others were standing behind the main building. The sight and sound of the pyrotechnics being launched were so overpowering that Norris was quoted as saying, "It sounded as if the Portage Lakes, and Dusty's in particular, was under siege."
Now that a feasible launch site was established, Barensfeld and his assistant manager at the Harbor Inn, Mark Ortscheid, raised $12,500 for the '86 show. Both the 1985 and '86 shows were produced by American Fireworks Co. of Hudson.
Barensfeld and Ortscheid repeated their success the following year by raising an unheard of total of $15,000. The '87 show, however, was an unusual one. Larry Lomaz of Midwest Fireworks Company supervised the launchings over the phone from a security cell in Portage County while incarcerated. It was also the year a 12-inch shell misfired and fragmented a 55-gallon metal launching drum. So powerful was the ill-fated blast that shrapnel shredded the main storeroom's front windows at Dusty's.
In 1988, while in my final year of chairing the annual Portage Lakes July 4th boat parade, unsettling news arose. Due to rising insurance premiums (partly due to the prior mishap at Dusty's), Barensfeld could no longer underwrite the show. All looked lost until I met with RC Norris.
"RC, I regret saying this, but we have a problem. Unless we find someone to underwrite the show," I said, "our July Fourth fireworks is history."
The site of this unplanned meeting was Howie's, a self-proclaimed "classy establishment since 1953" on the shores of Turkeyfoot Lake. There we sat that chilly April evening on corner bar stools next to the fireplace pondering the fate of the show and discussing what could be done to save it. As evening hours droned on and talks continued, a new organization evolved.
RC Norris agreed to underwrite the show. Diane Kruger was recruited to spearhead fundraising and I handled public relations. Our combined efforts established the Portage Lakes Fireworks Association (PLFA). With the show saved, its financial plateau was successfully raised to $20,000.
In 1989, fundraising methods were changed. Rather than soliciting donations from generous folks and businesses, a cocktail party was held at Anthe's and 300 tickets were sold. Skydivers were added as a feature that year and the next. In 1990, the show reached the $25,000 level.
New leadership emerged and led the endeavor for the '91 show. Jim Riccardi, owner of the Upper Deck, Judy Lane and "Big" Ted headed the program. This trio continued their success on into 1992 and '93.
Before the show's 10th anniversary in 1994, RC Norris returned to the helm of the PLFA. The fireworks show had reached yet another level when it raised $30,000. Yard sales and Dog ’N’ Suds, featuring the music of Jimmy and the Soulblazers, were added to fundraising activities.
However, due again to insurance restrictions, the location of the '95 show at Dusty's was terminated. For weeks, the show was in doubt. But by this time, the fireworks had become a mainstay. It was expected by all.
During these July Fourth firework shows, thousands lined the shores to watch. Thousands more packed their boats and anchored in the waters of Turkeyfoot Lake. Boats were starboard to port, and so tightly packed it was not impossible, but quite common, for one to walk from Turkeyfoot Island to State Park Beach over water by hopping from one boat to another. Many witnessed this feat more than once.
Thousands brought their families to the state park. The beach was so jammed, at times it was difficult seeing sand between blankets. The number of viewers ran anywhere from a conservative estimate of 25,000, which was usually from state officials, to a guesstimate of 125,000 from show organizers. A more realistic count fell in the range of 50,000 to 75,000.
After the show, driving home was slower than rush hour traffic. It was faster in stern-to-bow boat traffic at a snail's pace from Turkeyfoot Lake to East Reservoir, than it was driving a car bumper-to-bumper from Dusty's Landing to the Harbor Inn.
Last minute efforts from two loyal fans saved the 1995 show. Local residents Bill Hunter and Bill Shively rescued the show by encouraging Turkeyfoot Island Club Trustees, William Durbin, Fred Lacher and Dave Fielder to make Mason's Point, the isolated, eastern tip of State Park, available as a new launch site.
The panoramic potential of this ideal site prompted dozens of volunteers to clear the land and foliage overgrowth to facilitate the ballistic trajectory of the rockets. Once again RC Norris led a now-seasoned ticket sales team to an unprecedented $32,500 level, and the fireworks show was saved.
In 1996 RC Norris stepped aside for new, fresh blood, and the fund raising efforts were taken over by Dano Mundy of Dano's Lakeside Lounge on Miller Lake. Great music was featured at fundraisers by Larry Alltop and the Nostalgics and Phil 'N' the Blanks. At a raffle-cocktail party that year, Phil Ridgeway's band was an exceptional crowd pleaser. Contributing heavily to the '96 success were Steve and Shirley Mervosh who successfully transformed BITOA Ski Club's abandoned fall reverse raffle into a fireworks fundraising activity.
Mundy continued the fundraising efforts in 1997, coordinating the summer fundraisers led by the Mervoshes with a fall reverse-raffle party. Since then, Mundy and his "Gang of 21" continue to lead the PLFA.
In 2000, to end the second millennium and welcome in the third, Mundy and his crew successfully produced a $50,000 display. And each year since then, the show has grown. It's now one of the most talked about firework displays in Northeastern Ohio.
The Portage Lakes fireworks display has always been a community effort. So many have helped to make this event a success with their generous time and monetary donations, it would be impossible to name everyone. However, the Portage Lakes community is most grateful for their generous contributions and dedicated involvement. Of this they can be assured.
This year, 2016, marks the 32nd continuous year for the fireworks. As one of the largest in the nation, no taxes have ever been used on it or any aspect of the show.
A $32,500 publicly funded firework display may be a point of gratification, but a $50,000 one is a mark of great community pride. Financially, it is now the third largest show in the Ohio and perhaps the largest privately financed one. It is for a fact, the largest fireworks display in Summit County.