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Three summers ago, Mother Nature gave the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department a spectacular pre-show for its annual Fourth of July fireworks.

A couple of hours before the 1998 fireworks were scheduled to go off, a tornado was spotted north of town.


LARRY MAYER/Gazette staff

A clown on stilts strides down the parade route in a previous July Fourth celebration in Laurel.

through a sheriff’s deputy on duty, firefighters cleared Thomson Park of 30,000 spectators in 10 minutes, says Bob Dantic, who emceed the event that year.

Fortunately, the storm moved on without touching down.

Although not everyone return-ed to the park after danger passed, the fireworks went on as scheduled.

The fireworks display has been the central part of Laurel’s Fourth of July since 1950 or 1951, says Darrell McGillen, a longtime volunteer firefighter who has helped with the show for 26 years.

McGillen’s late father, Darrell J. McGillen, joined the department in the early ’50s and soon became known as “Mr. Firecracker” because he was in charge of the fireworks show for many years.

The fireworks started when firefighters, concerned about fatal traffic accidents over the Fourth of July, wanted to bring local residents home before dark on the holiday.

Red Lodge and Cody’s popular Independence Day rodeos drew many Laurel residents and put them on the road home late at night, McGillen says.

Laurel’s first fireworks display was a shadow of its future self. Firefighters dug into their own pockets to come up with the money to buy a few sky rockets and small fireworks.

The display grew more elaborate each year, until now about $40,000 worth of aerial and ground fireworks is shot off over 45 minutes.

Those dollars go further than many other displays because Laurel residents donate their time to set up the show. Money raised through donations and a drawing for prizes goes directly to the cost of the fireworks, McGillen says.

The display has grown to be one of the largest fireworks in Montana and, perhaps, in the Northwest, says Terry Ruff, fire chief and chairman of the display for the last seven years. Last year’s display had more than 6,000 rounds of fireworks.

Like other volunteer firefighters, Ruff works on the display around a full-time job — he’s a pipefitter at Cenex Refinery — and family duties.

McGillen owns the Palace Bar & Lanes. Dantic manages Jan’s IGA grocery, which his parents own.

Another common thread among the 35 firefighters is that most grew up in Laurel attending July Fourth celebrations.

Firefighters buy the fireworks from Rasmark in Bozeman. The fireworks include ready-made aerial bombs that blossom in the night sky.

Firefighters design and build their own ground displays.

Ruff particularly is proud of a post-Gulf War display that featured a fireworks-spangled jet airplane, 12 feet long and 6 feet wide. After it was lighted, the sparkling plane flew along a cable strung 40 feet in the air between two light poles as Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” was played.

Another year, they created a fire truck with a firefighter spraying water.

Plans for this year remain a secret, although this year’s theme is not.


if you go Spectators can watch the July Fourth fireworks from Thomson Park, which is across the street from the Laurel High School football field where the fireworks are set off.

Fireworks start at dusk, between 9:30 and 10 p.m. Get to Laurel by 8 p.m. or earlier.

A barbecue by the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary starts at 11 a.m. and usually goes through the afternoon in Thomson Park. Big Mo’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Show music starts at 6 p.m.

Laurel High School’s parking lot is open for visitors, but it fills up early. Plan an hour to find a parking space on city streets and to walk to Thomson Park.

Allow at least an hour to navigate through traffic after the fireworks are over.

Other events today in Laurel include: a pancake breakfast, 6 a.m. to noon, in Fireman’s Park; kiddie parade, noon, from First Citizen’s Bank to Yellowstone Bank; and the main parade, 1 p.m., starting at the Caboose Saloon on Main Street.

year’s theme is chosen through a contest among Laurel eighth-graders. Michael Herman won this year’s competition with “Blasting into the New Millennium.”

Herman will be the junior marshal of the Fourth of July parade earlier in the day along with the grand marshal, Dr. John Smith, a retired dentist.

The show now is safer for firefighters after they moved from hand-lighted fireworks to an electronic ignition system. Adding more mortars so they only need to be loaded once, also has eliminated minor injuries that firefighters used to suffer during the show.

Depending on the direction of the wind, some ash and powder has drifted down on spectators seated in Thomson Park, McGillen says.

As the displays have expanded, so have the crowds, which have ranged from 30,000 to 50,000 people in recent years.

Heavy rain has delayed the show a couple of times in the last decade. One year, it had to be rescheduled a week later.

The fireworks have become such a fixture for three generations of Laurel residents that family and class reunions frequently are planned to coincide with the event.

Bob Dantic’s daughter, Jacque, a recent graduate of the University of Montana, will be married to Eric Busch the weekend after the Fourth. But more than 100 friends and family members from several states will arrive earlier this week for several days of pre-nuptial functions.

Today’s fireworks display at Thomson Park is a major part of the celebration.Mary Pickett can be reached at 657-1262 or at