In August 1905, William P. Palmer, a resident on the “Overlook” in Cleveland Heights sent a letter to Mayor Tom L. Johnson complaining about the fireworks being set off during the Feast of the Assumption in Little Italy, located just below his house. Johnson sent the letter to his police chief, Fred Kohler. Kohler investigated the situation and replied to Palmer, noting that nothing could be done as the fireworks were set off just beyond the city limits. He promised, however, to work with the community to try to quiet things down.
Interestingly, Palmer was the head of American Steel and Wire in Cleveland and also would become the president of the Western Reserve Historical Society to which he left an outstanding collection of material relating to the Civil War and the abolitionist movement.
Palmer’s issue with fireworks reflected a larger concern in Cleveland and other urban areas during the early Twentieth Century. It was not only the noise, but the danger posed by fireworks. The “Safe and Sane Fourth of July” movement began in Cleveland in 1908. It followed on several major local firework related disasters. In 1903 a fireworks manufacturing company located on Orange Avenue (near today’s main Cuyahoga Community Campus) suffered a massive explosion. It destroyed twelve buildings and resulted in three deaths. Later a display of fireworks for sale at a local Kresge store exploded when a spark from a sparkler set fire to a flag and then the counter. Many people were burned and five were trampled to death as shoppers fled the inferno. That resulted in the movement to ban fireworks and, indeed, in 1908 Cleveland prohibited fireworks in the city. It was the first community in the nation to do so.
Nevertheless, the Safe and Sane ordinance allowed for professional displays and banned powerful or dangerous devices from sale. Local noise or nuisance ordinances also impinged on the personal use of fireworks, but busy police departments had little time to enforce the laws. One local policeman who did enforce the ordinance ended up shooting off the confiscated fireworks in his own back yard (which was adjacent to the author’s childhood home). The cacophony of explosions were to continue on the Fourth of July with little interruption — and, indeed, it accelerated in the past several decades with the appearance of fireworks “wholesale” sites alongside many state highways. The only caveat was that the buyer had to sign a paper indicating that the devices would be used outside the state.
With so many loopholes, the state has just passed a law this year allowing for the legal use of certain fireworks – provided that local ordinances do not prohibit their use, and that they be used on specific holidays, including New Year’s Eve and Day, Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, on and around the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and for the Hindu Festival of Diwali.
The new law reflects not only the difficulty of banning fireworks, but also our desire to celebrate heritage and history with noise, color and light – a propensity that has expanded with the growing diversity of the nation. It’s hard to imagine what Mr. Palmer would think if he were living on Overlook Road today — the Feast of the Assumption continues, as does the Fourth of July — and on the Lunar New Year and Diwali, Case Western Reserve University joins in the celebration with professional fireworks displays that honor the heritage and holidays of many of its students.