I have always loved fireworks. My first experience with them was back in 1960, in Sarasota, Florida, when I was six years old. We stayed at a beach resort on the Gulf of Mexico, and the owner was an older man, perhaps 70 or more, who was very friendly. In his shop he had an entire drawer filled with firecrackers, Roman candles, cracker balls, and jumping jacks, and he gave me handfuls of the stuff to play with. I learned how to strike a match on that vacation, and I fell in love with fireworks.
My First Experiences
When I was nine, I discovered the formula for gunpowder in a library book: seventy-five percent saltpeter, fifteen percent charcoal, and ten percent sulfur. I asked my Dad that evening to teach me about percentages (without telling him why), and then proceeded to go down to the local drug store the next day to purchase a box of saltpeter and a box of “flowers of sulfur”. I ground up some charcoal briquettes into powder for the charcoal component, and then carefully measured out the ingredients based on volume. Several years would pass before I would learn that percentages are based on weight, not volume when it comes to chemistry. And even more time would pass before I would understand that the type of charcoal used in the mixture makes an equally important difference as well. Regardless, I placed my mixture in a cardboard tube, glued end caps on the tube, taped it tightly, and then poked a hole in it for a fuse. After I lit the fuse, though, all the device did was pop open, burn, and emit smoke. It was a complete failure.
Since I had made a coffee can worth of this composition, I decided I would make a model volcano with a throat that was large enough to hold the remains of my gunpowder. On Saturday morning, I placed the volcano in the garage with the front door open, filled the throat, inserted a fuse, and lit it. The result was awesome – a giant gerb with flames and tons of smoke! Of course, there was so much smoke that I could not see in the garage and my father had to come in to rescue me. It was great, however, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
My Dad liked fireworks, too, and when he saw what I had done with the volcano, he took the time to explain more about fireworks to me. We struck a deal that day: I could ask him questions about fireworks, and if he knew the answer, he would give me an honest explanation. The caveat: I was allowed to make anything I wanted to as long as I ran it by him first. Also, I agreed not to make anything that would require the use of chlorates or perchlorates until I had at least one semester of college chemistry behind me. Overall, I thought it was a good deal. My Dad knew that without the use of better oxidizers (chlorates and perchlorates), I probably would not be able to make flash powder. I was in my teens before I figured that one out.
In the summer of 1965, we traveled to North Carolina and I remember purchasing a large package of “Crab” Brand Firecrackers (80 packs of 24 crackers). It was enough to keep me supplied with firecrackers for the next three or four years. As a kid, I always had a few firecrackers in my back pocket just waiting for a chance to do mischief or create mayhem when the opportunity presented itself. When I got older, I learned that you could purchase anything from Gilbert General Store (for a price!), and they quickly became my supplier of choice for most of my purchases. I also learned how to scavenge stars from duds, how to make creative use of road flares, and how you could buy one-pound cans of blackpowder from any gun store. The hard part was finding formulas.
By the time I was in my early twenties (during the later part of the 1970s), I had moved to the Washington, DC, area. There I discovered I could go to the Library of Congress and read books about fireworks (especially books on Pyrotechnics by Kentish and Weingart). They wouldn’t let you check the books out, but you could copy pages for five cents a page, and I would bring pads of paper along with me to copy down formulas. Then I would go to hardware stores, paint stores, and sometimes boat stores, to find large quantities of the chemicals I needed for my creations.
In the early 80s I found a company called KSI that sold nearly every ingredient I needed to make fireworks, but as it happened, life got in the way first: I got married, had kids, and then drifted away from the pyrotechnic hobby I loved.
In the mid-90s, the Internet was in full force, and I was in the middle of it because I owned an Internet company. I remember doing a search one night for fireworks chemicals, and was directed to a company called “Skylighter” (www.skylighter.com) that literally sold everything I would ever need to make pyrotechnics. And they were located less than 100 miles from my house! Not only did they sell over 1,000 products for make fireworks, they sold books about how to make pyrotechnics—LOTS of books! So, I immediately began ordering things from Skylighter, and over time, Harry Gilliam (the proprietor) and I became friends.
Crackerjacks and Life before MAPAG
In 1997, I placed an order for a large number of chemicals from Skylighter, and Harry asked me why I wasn’t a member of the “Crackerjacks.” I responded with, “The who?” Harry explained that Crackerjacks was a fireworks club comprised of guys just like me who liked to build and shoot fireworks. Best of all, the Crackerjacks provided everyone with a venue to do exactly that. I showed up at the Crackerjacks shoot in October 1997, and it was like someone opened my eyes for the very first time. Here were others who felt the same way about fireworks that I did! I immediately felt at home amongst these people, and I started talking to everyone and soaking up every tidbit of information I could get.
Having fireworks as a hobby, however, presented me with an unfortunate dilemma because of where I live: while it is perfectly legal to build fireworks in most states (the U.S. Federal Government says it’s OK), the state where I live—Maryland—frowns upon those who build pyrotechnics. As a matter of fact, you can get levied a serious fine and/or go to prison for building fireworks here. So, a probable solution for me (and many others) was to acquire buildings and materials as a club, so the people we could participate in their hobby legally and not suffer consequences individually. I brought this up to some folks in the Crackerjacks, and most people thought it was a good idea.
In 2001, I decided to become more involved in the organization and ran for and was elected to the Crackerjacks board of directors as first vice president. As VP, I quickly discovered a lot of resistance to the idea of supporting our builders by turning the club into a kind of “legal zone” for them. There were legitimate concerns regarding safety, accidents, and liability. Some felt the club was a “Class C” club and had no business making fireworks at all. The message was clear: go slow and perhaps we could make it happen over time. Unfortunately, it never would come to pass.
In November 2004, I went to the Florida Pyrotechnic Arts Guild (FPAG) 4F shoot. There I saw some of the best shells I had ever seen in my life: “Sun and Planets” shells built by Mitch Piatt. The farm they were on was awesome, too, and people were literally spread out all over the farm under pop-up tents making their own shells and components. In addition, they had a building designated for finishing shells, and a location set aside just to dry things. It was perfect, and it was exactly what I wanted to come back and do with the Crackerjacks. But when I got back and described what I had seen in Florida, their accomplishments were simply dismissed by pointing out that “FPAG is a builders club, and we are not that kind of club”. Nonetheless, all of the builders in the Crackerjacks were constantly facing the same legal issues, and the club wasn’t doing anything to help make those issues go away.
Another thing some of us wanted to do with the Crackerjacks organization was to help promote building by having more seminars. We figured if we could build ourselves a pavilion, we would have a nice place to do seminars, hold meetings and even hang out for afterglows. Success! The motion to build the pavilion was passed by the board. It took a while to get it built, but it was eventually completed. Ironically, on the first day we tried to use it for a seminar (in 2006) concerns were immediately raised that the pavilion would “unsafe” if we allowed builders to build inside and conduct seminars there. So, the builders were forever banished from the completed pavilion, and I was banished from the building as well because one club member did not like it that I attached 10-gram salute headers to my rockets.
During the winter of 2006 and in 2007 there was a lot of discussion via email regarding the direction of the club. Many members felt like the club had “lost its way” somehow, and that it faced imminent danger because of builders. Some equated builders to “basement bombers”, and some others felt builders were an “accident waiting to happen”. At this point, I was thoroughly frustrated by the whole situation. I then proposed creating a builders club to eliminate the perceived risk Crackerjacks felt the builders imposed. I would call this new club the “Mid-Atlantic Pyrotechnic Arts Guild.” Afterwards, I received a large number of phone calls from members asking me not to split the club up. The board was suddenly more receptive and told me the builders were valued members, and they promised to purchase a couple of sheds for builders use. They even decided to acquire a WASP machine.
So, the WASP machine was purchased, but the sheds they acquired were far too small for anyone to seriously work in. As politics would have it, I later learned that all of this was done by design, as one board member in particular was totally against the use of sheds for the builders. To make matters worse, the sheds became storage areas for tables, chairs, and even a large pipe organ. To pacify builders, the Crackerjacks chose to erect a large canopy in the field, but unfortunately, the canopy had to be torn down by 4:00 PM to accommodate the nightly display. And there was still no place to dry shells or stars. To complicate the issue further, if any members wanted to use the Crackerjacks magazine for contingency storage, it wasn’t atypical for some Crackerjack board members to go into the magazine and burn the materials they were entrusted with storing. It was not a good situation for any of us.
By 2010 (which happens to even the best of organizations sometimes), the Crackerjacks board became preoccupied with politics, organizational control and money. The club’s bylaws were even rewritten to take away the power of its membership to remove officers by majority vote. Board members would now be compensated for meals, hotel rooms, etc., in return for being on the board. Communication with other members via email was carefully controlled as well with restrictions placed on what could be discussed. Members who did not follow their explicit guidelines faced instant removal from the list. Egregious behavior resulting in banishment from the list included everything from mentioning the date of some event for another fireworks club (or any fireworks event other than Crackerjacks) to simply complaining. And this tyrannical attitude permeated everything that had to do with the club, including anything a member might do to alienate the farmer who owned the property where the Crackerjacks regularly met.
In May 2012, during a late night telephone conversation between the President of the Crackerjacks, Danny Clark, and the owner of the farm, Herb Jenkins, a point of disagreement was raised. Instead of working to find a solution, the President of the club announced the club would relocate the May shoot at an abandoned coal mine in Pennsylvania. Thus began the roving nature of the Crackerjacks that would eventually cause the club to break apart. For the builders, this decision to leave the farm was catastrophic because fireworks manufacturing laws were/are different for each location. By simply coming to a Crackerjacks event and building a rocket, a builder could be in violation of some local law and be subject to arrest. Additionally, without a fixed magazine, materials would not be available at prospective shoots without prior arrangement. Transporting all the equipment around was not an acceptable option.
In October 2012, Herb Jenkins held a fundraiser on his farm for muscular dystrophy (MDA). I was invited to attend the event along with several others people. When I ran into Herb, I apologized for all the nonsense he had taken from the Crackerjacks when the organization left the farm. I asked him if there were any plans to host another fireworks club on the farm. He indicated he would love to have another fireworks club there, and hoped someone would to organize such a thing. I asked him if I tried to create such a fireworks club, if we could meet there. Herb’s response: “Hell yes, but I don’t want any of the Crackerjacks board members coming here.” Later that evening I ran into Eric Stewart, who I had heard might be trying to start another fireworks club. When I asked him, though, he told me that he hadn’t thought much about it , and if he did he wouldn’t do anything seriously until spring.
Then I ran into Cameron Graiser who told me that Danny Clark was telling everyone that I stole the Crackerjacks email list and gave it to Herb for his fundraiser. (Not true, of course).
Needless to say, I was pissed. The jackals running the Crackerjacks had corrupted the club, destroyed its stability by getting kicked off the farm, and now those same individuals were spreading untrue rumors about me. By the time I got home late Sunday night I told my wife I was going to start a new fireworks club. Although she wasn’t very happy about it, by Tuesday I had filed for incorporation with the State of Maryland, and by Wednesday I had setup a website and an email list. The next weekend at the next Crackerjacks shoot in Chesapeake Beach, we passed out “Chinese fortune cookie” papers with MAPAG information on it to let builders know about the formation of new club. From that point on, it was up to the builders to decide if this would become a viable organization or not.
What a Builders Fireworks Club Should Look Like
Building a fireworks club from scratch offered a host of possibilities. Now, I had the opportunity to sculpt every aspect of what I wanted a fireworks club to be. From my perspective, the most pressing issue for builders related to the precarious legal situation we found ourselves in dependent on our home state. I felt it was critically important to provide a safe, legal way for members to practice their hobby without fear of prosecution. To do this, we had to address a number of pressing issues:
- Magazine Storage – We needed an ATF approved magazine that could hold the materials of all of the club members. Ideally, the magazine could provide legal storage to ATF license holders (through a variance), contingency storage for licensed members using the club to record materials, and club storage for non-licensed club members. The club would also keep and publish records regarding the magazine for all club members. Club acquired product would be open for use to all club members.
- Real Contingency Storage – The ATF requires you to transfer your materials to the owner of record when you use contingency storage. For the Crackerjacks, this meant that members would lose control over your materials and someone could simply burn your product for any reason. With the new club, even though materials are stored under contingency storage, they would be reserved for their rightful owner to use.
- ATF Licensing – The new club would provide licensing to members in good standing through the responsible person (RP) designation on the club license. This eliminates the cost to apply for a license, eliminates renewal fees, eliminates spot inspections for RP participants, allows RP’s to purchase commercial materials and bulk chemicals, and provides a method to legally transport materials on public highways.
- In-Process Building – The new club would provide a legal place to dry stars, shells, and components between club events.
- Finishing Building – The new club will provide a building for finishing and lifting shells. The club will also acquire a WASP machine for wrapping shells, which will be stored in the finishing building.
- Press Shed – A separate shed would exist for pressing rockets, stars, and other devices.
- Chemical Storage – A building would exist for storing chemicals, paper, and other donated items.
- Mortar Racks – A shed would exist for storing mortar tubes, and an effort would be launched to acquire as many guns as possible in order to support club events.
- Frequent Meetings – The new club would meet frequently enough to ensure members could actually build things on a regular basis. (We decided to meet on the last weekend of each month, defined by the date of the month’s final Sunday). Events would take place April through October, and run from Thursday through Sunday.
- Pavilion for Seminars – The pavilion that was originally built to support seminars and manufacturing activities for the Crackerjacks would now be used for that purpose.
- Popup Tents – Although initially developed by members of FPAG, we would now also use the idea of individual popup tents to support mixing of comps and other dangerous activities.
With these items established, builders would finally have the ability to get out of their garages and come to MAPAG to build, store, and shoot fireworks legally. And with seven three-day events scheduled, there would now be plenty of opportunity to build, shoot and perfect their craft.
There were also a few residual idiosyncrasies leftover from Crackerjacks bylaws I wanted to change while I was at it:
- Change the bylaws so the power is in the hands of the members, not the board. (We used the FPAG Bylaws for over ninety percent of our bylaws since FPAG has done such an excellent job creating theirs).
- Eliminate the ability of board members to receive compensation for merely holding a board position positions. (For example: getting reimbursed for buying $200 worth of lumber or the club was acceptable, but receiving $100 toward your hotel room out of the club account would not be).
- Remove money as the principal motivator for membership in the club. Of course, we encourage everyone to pay their membership dues, but we won’t kick them out if/when they’ve fallen on hard times financially.
- Get rid of the Saturday 10:00 PM afterglow, and replace it with a 6:00 PM potluck dinner. (That is generally a better time to eat, and results in better food with less cost to the club. As it turned out, this was one of our most popular decisions).
- Open up our email list up to everyone—even non-club members—so they can openly discuss whatever needs to be discussed. The bottom line: we are a fireworks club. We should be able to discuss any fireworks-related topic we want to discuss, or invite anyone to any fireworks event going on anywhere.
- Teach many more seminars. So far, we have held seminars on pyro chemistry, getting legal, keeping good ATF records, making whistle rockets, making three-inch canister shells, making large five-inch salutes, and we have presented the PGI display operator certification course.
Forming a New Club
Most people have no idea how much work goes on behind the scenes to start and maintain a fireworks club. The following is a rundown of what we did to start the Mid-Atlantic Pyrotechnic Arts Guild (MAPAG). In many cases, the club was extraordinarily blessed because we had a place to hold events, and had exceptionally generous members with the means to acquire equipment and various assets that would have taken years to assemble otherwise. In the text that follows, I mention a number of documents. If anyone would like to have copies of these documents, just send me an email.
- We incorporated the club in the State of Maryland as a tax-exempt non-stock close corporation. You need to develop a document called “Articles of Incorporation” to do this. You can setup a corporation in any State, but you need a registered agent in the State where you incorporate, and as I live in Maryland, it made sense to save the annual registered agent fee and do so in my own State.
- We setup an email list to get people to subscribe so we could coordinate the formation of the club. We also setup a website to describe what we were doing and track our progress. There is a web page grid system called “Bootstrap” that can be used to create a website very easily (just Google “Bootstrap 3” for more information).
- To let people know about the new club, we went to a Crackerjacks meet and passed out little strips of paper to the builders in the club to let them know about the new website and email list. About 65 people signed up on our email list in just two weeks following that Crackerjacks event.
- We obtained copies of bylaws for the PGI, the Florida guild (FPAG), the Wisconsin guild (WPAG), and the Crackerjacks. The next step was to get four other people (in addition to myself) involved so I could officially establish a board of directors. We mostly used FPAG’s bylaws with assorted PGI ideas added in, and had our new board of directors vote to adopt these.
- We then applied to the IRS for an EIN number and a DUNS number. You can do both of these online, and they are both free. Note: to open a organizational bank account you will need both of these numbers.
- Once we had our IRS EIN, we applied for classification as a not-for-profit IRS 501(c)7 social organization. If you go to the IRS site and look at the different not-for-profit classifications, you will see that the 501(c)7 classification was the best match for us. The PGI is a 501(c)6, but they can demonstrate industrial support during their conventions. Also, if we would had gone the 501(c)3 charitable route, we would have had a great more scrutiny, so 501(c)7 registration made the most sense. Note: the form you have to fill out to acquire this classification is over 20-pages long!
- Once we completed all of our IRS documents, we went to a local bank and opened a checking account. (We used PNC Bank because their non-profit checking accounts are free).
- We set up our accounting in “QuickBooks,” and we established an accounting control form for recording journal entries and tracking member reimbursements.
- We also opened a PayPal account so we could collect dues and contributions directly over the Internet online.
- We adopted the PGI’s liability waiver, too, since it had been tested in court and has held up well. We modified it slightly to add a paragraph about “the dangers of making fireworks” after someone had a minor accident in the field, but even beforehand, we felt the PGI’s document was a good document even without our modifications.
- We created a membership form and asked people on the email list to complete the form and send money into our membership director, Chip Claggett. Initially we charged $50 for membership, but we found we needed to raise it up to $75 to cover our expenses. We also charge a $20 shoot fee per family per event to cover toilets, electricity and other incidentals.
- We had our first meeting at John Werner’s home in January 2013. It appeared to be successful, and we had about a dozen folks show up and about 20 more who dialed in on their phones (even though the phone link was awful).
- We decided we would meet every month when the weather was warm (April through October). To date, we have had seven “live” shoots that have been three days long each (Thursday through Saturday, plus Sunday for cleanup). We also have other meetings during the winter to do training and other club preparatory work.
- Our events are located at the same farm the Crackerjacks used in the past. The neighbors are friendly, and the laws are in our favor. The farmer gave us a place to locate a 40-foot container for use as a magazine, and he also gave us the use of three large sheds for a workshop, an in-process building, and a press building. We held a club event to get together and clean up the sheds and finish out the one shed designated as our workshop. Fortunately, we don’t pay any rent for our space, but we do pay for electricity usage (around $35 a shoot) and we pay for toilets at every shoot ($204.75 a month for three toilets + tax from a local portable toilet company).
- We obtained a 40-foot container (nearly new) and had it transported to the farm. Then we showed up with a dozen people and $1,200 worth of OSB plywood to sheet the inside of the container for use as a magazine, and built shelves in it. The shelves have numbered locations to track where materials are stored. We also obtained a small indoor HE magazine for compliance with our high explosives manufacturing license application. You can download photos of our magazine from this URL: http://mapag.us/pdf/mapag-magazine-photos.zip
- We submitted an application for an ATF high explosives manufacturing license. They sent out a representative to look at our magazine, check our locks, and verified everything on the application. While the license was in process, I ran the club on my own ATF Type 20 license. We also applied for a variance that would allow club members with ATF permits to store materials in our magazine as if it were their own magazine.
- We applied for $2 million worth of liability insurance and D&O insurance through Debbie Merlino at Combined Specialties (415-209-0012). The application was voluminous, and we had to write an “anti-harassment policy” and a “mission statement” as part of the process even though we have no employees. We are allowed 21 shoot days each year (seven events for three days each), and the cost for that liability policy is $3,955.00 per year. The D&O policy is an additional $1,450.00 per year. While these are our biggest expenses, we ordinarily have enough money in the bank at the conclusion of our second year to cover our insurance for the following year.
- We apply for 21 shoot permits in March of every year. The county generally turns these around expeditiously and does not charge us. Each day is a separate shoot permit, and the time on each permit runs from 1 PM to 11 PM.
- We have to register our magazines with the State of Virginia at a cost of $125.00 per magazine (we have two magazines). This is difficult because Virginia relies on DOT definitions for explosives instead of ATF definitions. In the end, because we are a manufacturing club that is not in commerce, none of the things we make have DOT EX numbers, so they are not DOT anything – they are just “fireworks” and we can store them in our Type 4 magazine without problems. But Virginia has some weird rules if you have EX numbers and DOT ratings on your materials.
- We established a set of magazine records for the club using an Excel spreadsheet. It has all of the relevant sections in it, including manufacturing additions, acquisitions (purchases), material use, transfers, and the daily summary of magazine transactions (DSMT). It is essentially legal to use, but you must print a hard copy each time you update it as the ATF does not permit electronic records as a permanent copy. These records are emailed to all members of the club one week prior to each event to assist members with planning.
- We eventually received our ATF license and our member variance. A copy of our license can be downloaded from the website here (6MB color image):
- During our first few events we solicited tables, chairs, trashcans, stools, chemicals, paper, and anything else we thought we needed from the membership base. People were very generous with us. We also obtained mortar tubes and racks, presses, a WASP machine (we bought it used for $1,000), and a lot of other things.
- For the events, we decided to hold our afterglow directly after the Saturday afternoon club meeting (approximately 6:00 PM) as a “potluck” event. This has been hugely successful, and the food has been over the top with people bringing steak, shrimp, crab cakes, sausages, breads, candy, cakes, hamburgers and hotdogs, coleslaw, potato salad, and almost anything else you can think of. Most of us camp out in the field at night, and we hang out around the fire and chat well into the night after we get through shooting fireworks. The club members have bonded with one another amazingly well, and I have seen the pyrotechnic proficiency of our members increase substantially in just a year’s time.
- One of the biggest issues we have faced so far is how to control the recording of inventory in the magazine. It is imperative you keep immaculate records for the ATF, or they will yank your license in a blink of an eye. I have come up with a series of forms for members to use when they pull out or return material to and from the magazine. We also have someone in the club that is a kind of magazine czar, and they make sure the paperwork is complete before the material moves in or out of the magazine.
- On our second year, one of our benefactors purchased two 20-foot containers, and $12,000 in new Platt River mortar racks. We store chemicals and paper in one of the containers, and keep the mortar racks in the other container. (We have every size, from 2.5 inches up through 16 inches). We also have some steel guns up to 12 inches for shooting Maltese shells, and we can currently support a show with over 1,000 shells using our own mortar racks.
- During our second year we discovered that there was just too much work to do only having the few people we had enlisted. Since then, however, a number of people have stepped up to the plate to help by taking on the responsibility for some specific functions. In particular, we now have a membership director, a safety director, a magazine manager, an events manager, an infrastructure manager, and a seminar manager. The President handles the paperwork, filing for permits, application for insurance, interface with ATF, and the like. Our membership director handles all communication with the owner of the farm, and ensures we hang the sign that is required one week before each event. All in all, our organization is currently working like a well-oiled machine.
- In the spirit of FPAG (the club we modeled MAPAG after), we hold our biggest event in September of each year and open it up to people from other clubs. The 2014 season featured a computer-choreographed display that used member-built material. Personally, I think it was every bit as good as what you would see at a PGI event.
The State of MAPAG Now
The club is currently fiscally healthy and happy. We have accumulated a great deal very quickly, and I am truly grateful for all of the work, contributions, and planning that has occurred. We have nearly $6,000 in the bank, have a very active board, and are planning to hold two events in the near future: a holiday party on December 20th, and a group visit to the Hagley Museum in February. In short, it has been a real honor to serve such an amazing club, and I’m sure MAPAG’s next year will be equally exciting.