For many Bonackers and seasonal visitors alike, summer just isn’t summer without the Main Beach fireworks, started on Independence Day in 1915 by Felix Dominy. But the donation-driven event might be going out with a fizzle instead of a bang if donations keep falling as they have in recent years, said Walter Wirth, a council member with the East Hampton Town Fire Department.
“Next year, we might just have to hand out sparklers,” he said Tuesday.
Since 2007 — the year a pair of piping plovers, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act, were found to be nesting on the beach — the fireworks display has been pushed to Labor Day Weekend, giving the threatened shorebirds time to hatch their eggs and for the chicks to fledge.
But putting off the event to the end of the summer has been a put-off for many of the longtime supporters.
“We got an envelope this year with two pennies in it,” Alex Walter, the fire department’s treasurer, said. “Who spends 42 cents to send two pennies?” The two-cent opinion was “that’s all you get, until you move them back to the Fourth of July.” Mr. Walter has received quite a few letters with the same belief scribbled anonymously across the page.
Also, with the economic implosion over the last few years, the donations have all but floated away.
Mr. Walter, Mr. Wirth, Ray Harden, the chief, and Tommy Bock, an ex-chief, have all put on their fire hats to try to come up with a better solution. A barge, which has been discussed before, would be too expensive and too unreliable if the seas are choppy. And to bring the display down to the end of Georgica, out of the realm of plovers, according to the chief, would bring it too close to houses on the beach.
As of late, the fireworks display, handled by Bay Fireworks since 1996, has cost about $45,000 to stage. But looking to last year’s donations of approximately $29,000 means the Fire Department will have to use sequestered funds to come up with the remainder of the money for this year’s display. (Last year’s donations pay for this year’s event; which has always been the case.) “There will be a show this Labor Day weekend,” said Mr. Harden. “But it might be the last one if things don’t change.”
Donations for the fireworks display are collected in several ways. The most lucrative method has been the Fire Department letter that goes to all taxpayers of East Hampton Village and a swath of the surrounding area. “The money must be raised by the membership on a yearly basis so that we may continue to provide this truly exciting, and expensive, celebration of our community,” read a 1989 letter signed by Kenneth Wessberg, then the chairman of the fireworks commission.
Passing the hat at the event itself had, until recently, drummed up an additional $6,000 to $8,000 in good years. But with fewer people attending at the end of the summer, and less money to go around in general, these on-the-spot donations have dropped to almost nothing.
There have been close calls before. In 1969, the fireworks were moved to Sammy’s Beach, north of Three Mile Harbor, to waylay mounting parking problems at Main Beach. However, parking turned out to be just as difficult, if not more so, and the annual event was left to fallow for the following four years.
In 1974, the fireworks were moved back to Main Beach, with Neptune Fireworks of Belleville, N.J., providing the pyrotechnics.
The 1988 display was almost snuffed after a 1987 announcement by the department that the event was getting too big and too time-consuming for the firefighters to handle.
However, by the following June, the department had decided to relight the fuse after all, citing that “it was too important a tradition to abandon,” according to Mr. Wessberg, then mayor of the village.
The tradition was started, sort of, in 1908 by Felix Dominy selling fireworks, including the noisy “cannon-cracker,” from the back of his Main Street store. With a $1,000 budget, Mr. Dominy held the first public fireworks display on Independence Day seven years later, and didn’t stop until 1940 and the United States’ engagement in World War II.
During the subsequent two decades, East Hampton fireworks were held only at the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett until 1960, when two members of the department — Harry Cullum and Bill Crommett — fired up the festivities again.
The two firefighters were certified in dynamite and demolition work from their military days, but it still took an awful lot of spunk to try what they pulled off.
It must have seemed like a pretty good idea at the time — filling a weather balloon with acetylene gas and oxygen, letting it expand to over 10 feet in diameter, placing it on a 20-foot pole, and then exploding it by firing a dynamite cap on the highly flammable sphere.
According to a tongue-in-cheek account from the time, “It made a pretty big bang.”
It was Mr. Cullum and Mr. Crommett who first approached another Felix — Felix Grucci, head of the famed Grucci fireworks family — with $1,300 and an explosive dream. For the next 34 years, the Gruccis handled the fireworks at Main Beach and other locations on the East End, until Bay Fireworks picked up the torch.
Quite a few of the larger donations to the department have come from those with the best view — the owners of Main Beach property. But with the dates switched to the end of summer, many of those donors have taken flight to other places, along with the fledgling plovers.
And what about the plovers? The one original nesting pair has grown to six nests within a half-mile area, almost half of the 15 nests that are reported in East Hampton Town, according to Tyler Borsack, an environmental technician with the East Hampton Town Planning Department.
“Terns are making a comeback too,” he said, referring to least terns, on the state’s threatened species list, which seem to be very fond of the dredged spoil coming from the Hook Pond outflow pipe on the beach.
Will the fireworks make a similar comeback? Mr. Harden hopes so.
“We love doing the fireworks,” he said. “We’d love to do them on the Fourth of July. But Fish and Wildlife have the final say.”