Alex Roeser shudders to think about the fireworks or Independence Day revelry ever going dark in Delano.
“My phone would ring off the hook,” said Roeser, a local insurance agent who for years has helped plan the city’s annual five-day extravaganza.
At a time when some public displays of patriotism are attracting heightened scrutiny, July 4th celebrations remain marquee events in many small towns like Delano, which bills its July 4th bash as the oldest and largest in the state and wears that title like a State Fair blue ribbon.
It’s why festival organizers like Roeser say they’ve been watching with interest and surprise the recent news out of St. Paul, which for the first time in recent memory won’t be sponsoring a fireworks show this year.
From Delano to Forest Lake and Afton, July 4th celebrations are so cemented in community tradition that many refuse to even consider the alternative.
“It is part of the identity of the village, this iconic, all-American event,” said Stan Ross, who chairs the nonprofit committee in charge of the annual Afton parade.
Some towns crown royalty for the Fourth. Others shut down streets, hold dances, bring in bands and host carnivals days in advance.
Each Minnesota event comes adorned with its own superlatives, like whipped cream and berries atop a gelatin dessert: The biggest. The best. The oldest.
Stillwater city officials say their fireworks over the St. Croix River have the most pizazz because they launch them from city property across the border in Wisconsin, allowing for bigger starbursts.
Delano, of course, would beg to differ. As would the Brainerd Lakes area, the self-proclaimed July 4th capital of Minnesota.
Organizers say the traditions live on largely because volunteers or nonprofits have either taken them over or are still getting a boost from cities willing to chip in.
“Let’s face it. It’s a very divisive time,” Roeser said. “This brings people together.”
By Sunday night, the first folding chairs had appeared along St. Croix Trail in Afton, placed there by people staking out prime spots ahead of Wednesday’s parade. Last year’s event drew more than 20,000, Ross said.
Organizers say they pride themselves on keeping it old-fashioned and eclectic. That means limiting the entourages of politicians, which have gummed up the parade flow in years past.
Entries with folksy humor or quirkiness often steal the show, Ross said.
There was the group, for instance, that wanted to raise awareness about invasive jumping carp. They towed a pontoon boat along the route as walkers tossed pillows decorated like fish back and forth from the street.
Or the guy in the bright pink tuxedo who married couples on his “love float.” Or the man who zipped through the procession in a motorized recliner, just because.
Cancel the event? Nearly unthinkable, residents say.
“How do you stop something that just has a life of its own? They would show up anyway,” Ross said.
In Forest Lake, July 4th festivities have been going strong for more than 90 years, said Marcia Smeby, the parade chair.
“It’s the showstopping event of the year,” Smeby said. “We shut down the town.”
Run by the local American Legion and volunteers, the festival’s carnival, music and bingo began Friday. A parade and fireworks will cap the celebration Wednesday.
Don Skow, a former commander of Legion Post 225, spent Monday readying the fireworks platform on the lake, fashioned out of pontoon boats.
Skow, 67, has helped set the sky over Forest Lake ablaze with color since high school.
“It gets in your blood and just stays there. Must be the gunpowder,” he said.
In the Brainerd Lakes area, fireworks offer a blazing exclamation point to an Independence Day celebration that began June 21 with a patriotic pageant for kids.
The nonprofit Brainerd Community Action coordinates the area’s annual $45,000 event, said Holly Holm, the group’s executive director.
Across Minnesota, July 4th organizers say they often spend months rallying support and fundraising for the next national birthday.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter cited budget concerns in his announcement to skip the fireworks show and its estimated $100,000 price tag, a decision that has drawn both praise and criticism.
“I understand the argument, but it was surprising nonetheless,” said Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski.
Stillwater expects to pitch in nearly $48,000 for its fireworks and festivities, which have cost about $57,000 in recent years, according to city staffers. Fundraising helps close the gap.
Delano has marked the Fourth with pomp since 1857, before Minnesota was a state. Today it costs about $200,000 to put on the town’s dayslong celebration, which is organized each year by a volunteer nonprofit committee, Roeser said.
As a kid, Tim Diem grew up around July 4th merriment in the Wright County city, chasing foul balls for 10 cents apiece and following around his dad, Bill, a longtime event organizer.
Diem comes back to help each summer, even after recently moving to New York to take a job at Syracuse University.
“This is what the Fourth of July is to me,” he said.
On Sunday, Diem hustled around Delano’s Central Park, running change to vendors and making sure the propane cooker for corn on the cob got fixed.
Never mind the rain, which delayed the kiddie parade and swamped the ground around the family stage, forcing the raptor show to move to a baseball field.
Soon the clouds cleared, the corn kept cooking and the children’s tractor pull drew the biggest crowd in memory.
Diem took it all in and smiled, admiring his hometown’s Midwestern slice of Americana. Come Thursday — July 5 — the work for next year’s bash begins anew.