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Ann Arbor 200

Nathan Kelsay & The Buhr Park Fireworks

Year
2024

The city of Ann Arbor is usually fairly quiet on the 4th of July. There are no major fireworks displays, save for a couple small neighborhood celebrations. Residents often scatter across Michigan in search of lakes, cookouts, and holiday festivities. This wasn't always the case, however. Many older townies remember Ann Arbor's annual fireworks shows, and some even remember Nathan Kelsay, the man who made it all happen.

Nathan Kelsay

Nathan Braxton Kelsay Jr. was born January 23, 1917 in Columbia, Kentucky. After serving in World War II, he married Agnes Morris on June 6, 1946. They moved to Ann Arbor and Nathan worked as a meat cutter in local markets. In 1955 he opened his own business, Kelsay's Market, at 3008 Packard Road. Nathan was a colorful character in town known as a talented butcher, astute storekeeper, dedicated gun & saber collector (with many mounted above his meat counter), knowledgeable silver coin expert, habitual storyteller, and left-handed guy with a good sense of humor. In an interview for the Huron Valley Ad-Visor, he once declared "I love to talk to people. I like the feeling that goes with making someone happy by selling them something they want. I'd stay here (in the store) 24 hours a day if the good Lord would let me stand up that long." He lived with his family at 2672 Easy Street, on the edge of Buhr Park, half a mile from his market.

Kelsay's Market 1956
Kelsay's Market Advertisement, Ann Arbor News, February 1956
Kelsay's Market
Kelsay's Market, 3008 Packard Road, 1972

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fireworks In Ann Arbor?

On July 4, 1957, Nathan, Agnes, and their sons, Pat & Mike, all loaded into the family car, left Ann Arbor, and headed to Ypsilanti's Waterworks Park to watch the holiday fireworks display. According to the Ann Arbor News, a heavy rainstorm at dusk soaked the area, delaying the 10:30 pm show until midnight. "...workers of sponsoring American Legion Post 282 were forced to dig up mortars used to fire the works, dry them out and replace them along the Huron River at Waterworks Park." By the time the show began, many children in the crowd were asleep or crying to go home. Disappointed and frustrated by the evening in Ypsilanti, Nathan Kelsay made the decision to personally bring a 4th of July celebration to Ann Arbor.

The following week, Nathan Kelsay reached out to local businessmen friends, John Frisinger & Edward Hewitt, about his dream of bringing 4th of July festivities into the city of Ann Arbor. Together they founded the Spirit of '76 Club, solely focused on raising money for a local fireworks display. They placed donation jars on the counters of establishments around town, and convinced 38 local business owners to donate to their cause. The energetic butcher and his friends were successful fundraisers; having raised $1,500 they hired the highly regarded American Fireworks Company of Hudson, Ohio. The city of Ann Arbor approved the use of Buhr Park as a fireworks venue, and a spectacular show was planned for July 4th, 1958.

Buhr Park Fireworks, 1958 - 1968

When the big day arrived, the streets around Buhr Park were clogged with traffic. Roughly 20,000 people turned out for the July 4, 1958 Ann Arbor fireworks display, and the evening was memorable, to say the least. An editorial published the following day in the Ann Arbor News exclaimed "A most hearty "Well Done! - Thanks a million' goes to those whose many hours of hard work really paid off in the quality of the fine July 4 fireworks display at Buhr Park, out on Packard Rd. The hour-long show, proposed by Mr. N. B. Kelsay, really showed, after so many years, that Ann Arbor can present an outstanding celebration such as the occasion really merits. The tireless efforts of Mr. Kelsay, Ed Hewitt and John Frisinger were welcomed by a huge crowd of eager watchers..." 

Fireworks Display
Buhr Park Fireworks Advertisement, Ann Arbor News, July 1959

Buoyed by the triumph of their hard work, the Spirit of '76 Club wasted no time in starting plans for the 1959 holiday. July 4, 1959 in Ann Arbor featured another fireworks show at Buhr Park, organized by the Spirit of '76 Club, which had added three new members: Betty Flanders, Ralph Moore, & George Ralph. The list of businesses that donated grew significantly too, with lots of local residents wanting to be associated with the successful event. The American Fireworks Company was rehired. Washtenaw County's Junior Deputies were brought in to help control the flow of traffic and parking, and an ice cream truck created "happy bedlam", according to a local parent on the scene.

1959 Fireworks
Fireworks Display Over Buhr Park, Ann Arbor News, July 4, 1959

Nathan Kelsay was determined to make Ann Arbor's 4th of July fireworks an annual event, with every display bigger and better than the last. His ultimate goal was to make the show the second largest in the state of Michigan, outdone only by Detroit's fireworks. Despite the long days he worked at his market, he devoted countless hours of his own time to 4th of July fundraising and planning. "The public has been wonderful to us," Kelsay said in an interview. "Their contributions to our cannisters, along with important contributions of area businessmen, contractors and other groups, have this thing going." The Buhr Park fireworks show continued through 1960 and 1961, with Nathan Kelsay and his team working behind the scenes.

In 1962, the Sertoma Club of Ann Arbor assisted the Spirit of '76 Club with fundraising efforts. The Washtenaw County Electrical Contractors made a special contribution and funded free ice cream for all children attending the fireworks at Buhr Park. 1962's show also featured a special ear-splitting finale with the ignition of 192 shells. July 4, 1963's fireworks show was jointly presented by the Sertoma Club and the Spirit of '76 Club. 1963's festivities featured Ann Arbor Gymkhana members on trampolines performing before the fireworks display at Buhr Park.

Fourth of July Fireworks Traffic
Spectators Head Towards Buhr Park For Fourth of July Fireworks, Ann Arbor News, July 4, 1963
1963 Buhr Park Fireworks
Fireworks Over Buhr Park, Ann Arbor News, July 4, 1963

If successful fireworks shows are based on the number of spectators, Ann Arbor's July 4, 1964 show was Nathan Kelsay's best work. After a dismal donation year, the Spirit of '76 Club ramped up last minute efforts to raise the funds needed for the fireworks. They managed to pay all of the 4th of July bills, and even used leftover funds to donate a flag pole to Buhr Park. This 7th annual show drew a crowd of between 80,000 and 100,000 spectators. The Ann Arbor Police department stepped in to assist with crowd control and traffic chaos.

1965, 1966, and 1967 all saw decreased numbers of spectators for Ann Arbor's 4th of July fireworks displays, as well as a decrease in monetary donations. While many local residents still enjoyed the annual show, some Buhr Park neighbors had grown frustrated with the crowds that tore up lawns, trampled landscaping, left trash, and were drunk & disorderly. Teen boys tossing a lit firecracker into the 1965 crowd was the first of many complaints that began to surface. 1967's show was also hampered by unseasonably cold weather. Despite all these setbacks, Nathan Kelsay persevered. Unfortunately, in 1968, donations around the city ran dry. The Spirit of '76 Club was not able to raise enough money to support a fireworks show and July 4, 1968's festivities at Buhr Park were cancelled.

Boys At Buhr Park The Morning After Fireworks Show
Boys Search Buhr Park For "Souvenirs" The Morning After Fireworks Show, Ann Arbor News, July 5, 1967

Buhr Park Fireworks, 1969 - 1975

The cancelling of 1968's fireworks disappointed the city and inspired many local residents to get involved in 1969. The Pittsfield Business and Professional Women's group stepped up to assist with fundraising. Several local Kiwanis clubs donated to the cause. Most notably, the Ann Arbor Junior Chamber of Commerce (aka the Jaycees) assumed the Buhr Park fireworks display as a community project. With the backing of these organizations, the Spirit of '76 Club was able to bring back the July 4th festivities for 1969 and 1970, and much of the pressure was taken off of Nathan Kelsay.

Firework Funds
Nathan B. Kelsay Accepts Donation To Fireworks Show From Kiwanis Members, Ann Arbor News, May 1969

The fourth of July celebrations from 1971 to 1975 were overseen by the Ann Arbor Jaycees, with the Spirit of '76 Club's support in the background. There were a few problems: one show started an hour late due to a broken safety fence, 2 heart attacks were experienced in the crowd during one show, a police officer directing traffic was injured in 1974 when he was hit by a 16 year old driver. There were also updates and more successes, like the addition of the Ann Arbor Civic Band's performances before the fireworks display.

A Crowd At Buhr Park Waits For The Fireworks Show, July 4, 1975
A Crowd At Buhr Park Waits For The Fireworks Show, Ann Arbor News, July 4, 1975
Fireworks Over Buhr Park 1975
Fireworks Explode Over Buhr Park, Ann Arbor News, July 4, 1975

Buhr Park Fireworks, 1976

The United States Bicentennial Celebration, July 4, 1976, was what Nathan Kelsay and his cohorts had always dreamed of celebrating, and the reason their group was originally named The Spirit of '76 Club. As the date approached, Kelsay, The Spirit of '76 Club, and the Ann Arbor Jaycees (now chaired by Mike Kelsay, Nathan's son) worked hard to plan the best 4th of July celebration the city had ever seen. There would be sports demonstrations, a community barbecue, multiple musical performances, and even a magician in a strait jacket who would escape while dangling from a helicopter. The highlight would be the most elaborate fireworks show in the city's history. On June 16, 1976, just weeks before the biggest Buhr Park celebration of them all, Nathan Kelsay died of a heart attack. He was 59 years old. The fireworks committee members were stunned and heartbroken. It was decided that all of Ann Arbor's 4th of July festivities that year would be dedicated to the memory of Nathan Kelsay and his tireless enthusiasm for bringing fireworks to the city.

Nathan Kelsay
Nathan Kelsay Chats About The Buhr Park Fireworks Show, Ann Arbor News, April 1976
July 4th Fireworks, 1976
1976 Fireworks Advertisement, Ann Arbor News, July 1976

Buhr Park Fireworks, 1977 - 1978

An effort was made to keep the Buhr Park fireworks display alive in 1977, after Nathan Kelsay's death. In 1978, everything fell apart. The Kelsay family sold Kelsay's Market, which had been the longtime headquarters for fireworks fundraising. Numerous complaints about the fireworks shows had surfaced in the Buhr Park neighborhood and around the city, and many residents started to feel that the event was unruly and unsafe. On July 4, 1978, a 19-year-old woman in the Buhr Park fireworks crowd was rushed to the hospital after someone threw a lit firecracker in her face and gashed her chin open.

The End Of Ann Arbor's Fireworks

In 1979, it was announced that the Ann Arbor fireworks show would be relocated to the Ann Arbor Airport, ending the Buhr Park tradition started by Nathan Kelsay. The event was taken over by numerous city organizations and, in 1991, came to a quiet end. Local residents simply lost interest, and there was no one with the enthusiasm of Nathan Kelsay to keep the show going. In 1994, the Ann Arbor News ran an article titled "Community spirit has fizzled for fourth of july tradition", which summed up the situation. In 2002, the Ann Arbor News ran another article lamenting the loss of the fireworks. Interviewed for the article, Bob Kerschbaum, who still lived by Buhr Park with his wife, recalled "It was a really wonderful time. People really got together and made it that one special day, like Christmas. It was something all our kids looked forward to. Everybody was busy the whole day." In 1991, the year the fireworks came to an end, the city of Ann Arbor organized a 4th of July parade. Now, in 2024, Ann Arbor still celebrates with an annual 4th of July parade, which is overseen by the Ann Arbor Jaycees. 

 

Jess Mosher Studies Instruments In A Link Trainer At The Ann Arbor Airport, September 1946 Photographer: Eck Stanger

Jess Mosher Studies Instruments In A Link Trainer At The Ann Arbor Airport, September 1946 image
Year:
1946
Published In:
Ann Arbor News, August 31, 1946
Caption:
A VETERAN BRUSHES UP: Jess Mosher, 227 Crest Ave. flew P-51's for the Army air force during the war. Now he's taking an instrument course at the Ann Arbor airport under the GI flight-training program. As his regular job, Mosher works in the control tower of Willow Run airport. Giving him instruction on the Link trainer in the above picture is Everett Esch of the Ann Arbor Aero Service, an organization that is teaching many Ann Arbor veterans to fly.

University Of Michigan Flying Club Members At Ann Arbor Airport, April 1939 Photographer: Eck Stanger

University Of Michigan Flying Club Members At Ann Arbor Airport, April 1939 image
Year:
1939
Published In:
Ann Arbor News, April 24, 1939
Caption:
SEEK NATIONAL FLYING HONORS FOR MICHIGAN: When student fliers from 13 colleges and universities compete in the midwestern intercollegiate flying meet at Kenyon College, Gambier, O., May 6, the Michigan Flying Club will be represented by the five students pictured above. They are (left to right): Leslie J. Trigg, a junior from Detroit; Louis H. Goldman, a senior from New York City; Edward T. Martin (in the plane), a sophomore from Chicago and national president of the National Intercollegiate Flying Club; Glenn H. Brink, a Grosse Pointe senior and national secretary of the N.I.F.C.; and Daniel R. Ranney, a Chicago senior, who is the newly elected president of the Michigan Flying Club. Other members also may participate at Kenyon but the above five already are registered for the meet.