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A small town with a big bang

By TRACY KIEL
Mille Lacs County Times
Posted 7/3/03

When driving through Pease on the way from Milaca to Princeton, one encounters a sign upon first entering the town. This sign reads, ³The city of Pease welcomes you: a big little town with a Dutch heritage.² The sign probably implies that although Pease has a small population, it has a tremendous amount of character.

However, once a year the townıs population skyrockets into the thousands as people come there from all parts of the country to celebrate our nationıs independence.

People have been celebrating the Fourth of July in Pease for over a hundred years. During that time residents of the town have compiled memories and stories of this long-standing tradition. Although the celebration has changed over the years, the importance of the event has remained strong for the people of Pease.

According to ³The Christian Reformed Church of Pease 1895-1995,² the Fourth of July celebration probably began in the early years of the church. People met in a tent in the Alderinkıs woods about a mile south of town, where they had a ³pick-nick² and played a ball game. In a few years, the event was moved onto the church property, and a program was added to the festivities of the day.

Laurence Kiel, 78, had lived in or near Pease his entire life before moving to Milaca last year. He has always remembered the celebration being part of his life. He remembers that flags played an integral role in the celebration, and he also recalls many of the festivities that took place in the 30ıs and 40ıs.

In the morning, there was a program at the church, which usually included either an out-of-town political speaker or a former Pease kid who had grown up and made a name for himself, Kiel said. Then, families would gather at noon for potluck dinners. The afternoons were filled with activities such as three-legged races and pie-eating contests. There were also pillow fights, where two boys would sit on a pole and try to knock each other down.

Harold Pluimer, 83, still remembers winning a horse-shoe pitching contest when he was a teenager in the 30ıs.

Prizes for the winners of the contests usually consisted of tickets to be used at the concession stands, Kiel said. He remembers three stands being present at the celebration. If people werenıt fortunate enough to win contests, they would need to purchase tickets at the first stand. These tickets could be traded for treats. A smaller stand contained pop and ice cream, where a bottle of pop and an ice-cream cone were each sold for a nickel. The larger stand contained food such as pies and cakes.

After the games were over, it was time for the farmers to go home and do chores, Kiel said. Everyone went home for a couple of hours and then returned for more sports and contests. The highlight of these contests was the tug-of-war between people who lived on the east side of the railroad tracks and those who lived on the west side. Fifteen men usually participated on each side. One year the rope broke.

³These were all full-grown men,² Kiel said. ³The guys all fell down, of course.²

The evening concluded with the fireworks display, which were shot off about 20 feet from the canteen. However, these werenıt the first explosions to be heard in Pease on the Fourth. Firecrackers were sold at the stands along with the food, Kiel said, and anyone of any age could buy them.

Ray Rensenbrink, 56, grew up on a farm outside of Pease and moved into town in 1970. He remembers his dad setting off dynamite on a rock at their farm every Fourth. It was just part of the celebration, he said. Over the years, people have told stories of the dangers from the fireworks that rocked the town.

³Strange as it seems,² Kiel said, ³I donıt recall any injuries.² Kiel does recall an incident 20-25 years ago, where fireworks had started a fire in a cornfield north of town, and people had to put out the flames with cans of water.

As a local businessman, Kiel had lit fireworks for 40 years. During one display about 10-15 years ago, Kiel and Harlan Pap were lighting a string of fireworks that hadnıt come with instructions. They lit the first one, and all the rest of them started going off unexpectedly.

³With every blast we were given another push,² Kiel said. ³Every time one went off, it would give us another boost.²

Ray Rensenbrink has lit ground fireworks for roughly the past ten years. He recalls an incident where one of the bombs didnıt explode. It flew through the air and broke through a window in the back of Harry Moorlagıs empty van without ever going off.

³We talk about it every Fourth of July since,² Rensenbrink said. ³I still donıt understand it. Itıs a miracle.²

Rensenbrink also recalls a night about five to seven years ago when he and Merlin Koppendrayer were lighting a series called ³a thousand firecrackers.² They couldnıt find the right fuse, and, suddenly, the entire string exploded. The men were only about four feet away.

³It was so loud that we couldnıt hear each other the rest of the night,² Rensenbrink said. ³We still talk about that every year too.²

The Pease celebration has experienced many changes over the years. When Kiel was a boy, a swamp was located west of the picnic grounds, instead of the ballpark that replaces it today. Also, in the past the Pease Commercial Club, a group of local businessman, used to be in charge of purchasing the fireworks. Now, the City of Pease purchases them. However, local businesses in and around Pease still make the celebration possible through their donations.

³Itıs still really the show of the local business people,² Rensenbrink said. ³They are the ones who foot the bill.²

Rensenbrink and the other lighters now need to be licensed pyrotechnicians to work with fireworks. Also, since 9-11, the fireworks can not be stored in Pease overnight and are, therefore, delivered on the Fourth.

More important changes have taken place over the years. Pluimer, who served in World War II, said he is now more patriotic. Sports were the center of the celebration when he was a boy, but now he has gained a deeper meaning of freedom, he said. Rensenbrink agrees that people are more patriotic now, especially since 9-11.

Through all of these changes, the celebration has remained strong throughout the years. Herman Hubers, 86, believes one reason why the celebration has survived is the variety of activities: programs, sports, games, and fireworks. Rensenbrink believes the celebration has lasted because it is important to the community.

³I do think people come back to where they grew up. Itıs a time of a lot of family reunions,² he said. ³It kind of brings back people who have been gone for years and reunites families.²

Hubers believes the celebration is important to the community because of patriotism.

³Itıs a day that we can be thankful for a country that we are living in,² he said.


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