Archive for Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Big Bang: Vinland’s First Family of Fireworks and their epic Fourth of July bash

July 2, 2009


Illustration of Cotter Mitchell by John Lee of

Past Event
The Vinland Cracker


The sleepy little town of Vinland, 10 miles south of Lawrence, is about to wake up.

Between the exploding barrels, live music, potato cannons, hundreds of people, and thousands of Saturn Missile, nobody in this rural hamlet is going to get much rest on the Fourth of July.

And that’s just fine with Vinlanders, so long as they’re invited to the increasingly infamous Independence Day hootenanny that Cotter Mitchell and his family have been throwing for years.

“Chronology is not my strong suit, but this is 12 years now,” recalls Cotter, a grizzled shop coordinator in the Kansas University art department with a distinctive nub for an index finger and an even more distinctive billy goat beard.

He and his family took over hosting duties of the party from a Lawrence-based friend who moved to Japan, in large part due to what he calls his “beachfront property.”

“Since I lived in Vinland, which was outside of the city, it seemed reasonable. We face west out onto an airstrip,” says Cotter. “So far as blowin’ stuff up, it’s the perfect place. There’s nothing in the way. The guy who owns the strip said it was fine so long as we clean it up in the morning. Despite the fact the grass caught on fire once, he’s been very gracious about allowing us to use it.”

Audio Clips
The Big Bang: Cotter Mitchell talks about the finer points of his annual party

What began as a gathering of about 50 or so good friends has, thanks to word of mouth over the years, become an underground phenomenon known colloquially as the Vinland Cracker.

“My Johnny-On-The-Spot man, who seems to be a pretty good head counter — he can look in the little green room after everything is said and done and extrapolate how many people were there — declared that last year was the biggest party he’s seen yet. He pegged it at around 300,” he says. “So this year, I traded him an old motorcycle for two Johnny On The Spots and two cases of Saturn Missiles.”

“It’s really taken on a life of its own,” agrees Fadra Mitchell, Cotter’s wife and gracious co-host.

“There’s comes a point every year where the sun is down, there’s a grand finale going on, music is playing and Cotter and I will just stand back and look at all the people. I don’t know a lot of them, but they’re somehow all my people. I've always felt like there's a connection there — you know, somebody knows somebody knows somebody who told them about the party.”

“It’s beautiful at night,” says Chesney, the Mitchells’ 15-year-old daughter, who also serves as vocalist for the party’s house band. “There are so many fireworks that the sky is constantly lit up, kids are running around with sparklers — it’s really great.”

While it might sound like Woodstock with more explosions, the Mitchells are very keen on keeping the festivities family-friendly. If the verdict of their 10-year-old daughter is any indication, they seem to have succeeded.

“My favorite part? All of it,” declares Sylvie Mitchell. “I like shooting fireworks off, listening to my friends scream, dancing and embarrassing myself in front of everybody.”

Sylvie also tag teams with Chesney on deforming Barbie dolls with smoke bombs (available for purchase at the party at a price to be negotiated with the artists).

“It’s really cool,” Sylvie says of the Barbie-Q. “We also really like it when people bring their Hello Kitties and My Little Ponies and blow them up.”

“It’s a family affair,” says Cotter. “Anybody can have a fairly good time at this thing. I’ve been very impressed that everybody’s been respectful of this little town which I have to live in after the party. Nobody’s gotten hurt out there. Nobody’s done anything overtly stupid.”

Family has always been intertwined with the history of the Vinland Cracker. Romance, along with a lot of smoke, has been in the air since the very beginning.

“Cotter proposed to me with a pack of strobe light firecrackers at the second party,” wistfully recalls Fadra. “When I opened it up, there was a sweet little ‘Will you marry me?’ note mixed in with the firecrackers.”

More so than patriotism, it’s that sense of family and community that fuels the party’s fire. It’s a BYO fireworks, food and drinks potluck, and so long as you respect everyone else, you’re welcome to share the celebration.

Of course, there's plenty of patriotism to go around — but the fireworks are obviously a critical ingredient, too.

“Sure, it’s about our freedom. I get to have a party and nobody comes and shuts it down,” says Cotter, although he’s bursting more with a fondness for things that burst rather than with jingoistic pride. “If Easter eggs exploded, I’d probably have an Easter party, too.”


RogueThrill 8 years, 11 months ago

Buying fireworks is a white trash, fourth of July right of passage.

Don't let people know that their lives are going up in smoke.

John Yocum 8 years, 11 months ago

This story reminded me of the Fourth in my little hometown of St. Mary’s, KS, in the 60’s and 70’s. Every child's mind, and including many an adults' as well, was on planning the Fourth. We would wait patiently each year for the pamphlet from Rich Brothers Fireworks of South Dakota to arrive. Which display would we order this year? What shouldn't we order because it didn't work last year? Then, after placing our order, waiting for weeks for the stuff to come and one day looking out and seeing the delivery truck pull up with boxes and boxes of fireworks for my family, my grandparents, and the many neighbors who had all gone together to order.

Then on the Fourth, after the big city fireworks had ended, relatives, neighbors, and friends would all gather at our house and shoot off our fireworks until the perpetually-grumpy neighbor woman a block over (who also thought we made too much noise when we were out watching meteor showers), would call the police. The police would come to remind us the curfew was coming, but would often stay to watch some of the display.

Children running with sparklers, the pretty cones (no large aerials for home use yet), the Whistling Angel, the spinners, Roman candles, the laughter, the screams, the "oohs" and "ahhs", everything. And finally, as neighbors would say their goodbyes and lawnchairs were being folded, I'd be walking into the house at about 11:30 covered in residue and smelling like spent fireworks, suddenly realizing it was over for another year. It's sad that so many children and families do not get to experience such community spirit as this in the "modern and progressive" city we live in.

riverdrifter 8 years, 11 months ago

Dang, Cotter: somebody just referred to you & yours as 'white trash'. You has offishally arrived, Boy! See you at the party & we'll do another "white trash rite of passage": have a beer & a burger.

local_support 8 years, 11 months ago

Buffalobill plans to get teabagged on the 4th instead.

cowboy 8 years, 11 months ago

Lawrence , don't get too wild with those dangerous snakes and poppers.

Lawrence the town that killed the fourth of july

RogueThrill 8 years, 11 months ago

I don't think you get to claim in one thread that the fourth of July funds communist china and then defend fireworks.

Spending money on things that explode are pretty much the height of fiscal irresponsibility. You can have a good family weekend with a picnic, or badminton, or anything, but you don't have to blow a couple hundred bucks on crap that turns into a pile of paper and is manufactured in China.

Fireworks are not why your childhood fourths were memorable, it's because you were with family.

lori 8 years, 11 months ago

No, I'm pretty sure it's the "blowing stuff up" that makes it fun and memorable.

riverdrifter 8 years, 11 months ago

Oh, Multi, Dude has changed, but not that much. He's the same ol' Cotter. No new bibs... He built the dog kennel many years ago that my now third dog inhabits. Vinland & Baldwin are Dodge City when it comes to fireworks. Damn few cedar shake roofs here -let her rip!

Richard Heckler 8 years, 11 months ago

White trash...... likely not I'd say. Not from our observation anyway. They just know how to enjoy themselves their way.

iridebikesalot 8 years, 11 months ago

Dang ! Do I get to see Commanche the Horse or what ?!

Mary Darst 8 years, 11 months ago

I'd be proud to be called white-trash, if only I could be there.Will think about coming next year. Sounds like my kind of people.

gccs14r 8 years, 11 months ago

Too bad there's zero enforcement of the fireworks ban, though. Our dog won't go out during this time of year. We've been having to to take him out of town to go pee. The vet prescribed him a half of a Xanax to get through tomorrow.

Jock Navels 8 years, 11 months ago

the dude who thinks blowing up stuff from china is wasteful should look in his own wastebasket.

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