July 2, 2009

Catfish Place Fireworks to Light Up Sky With 35th Annual Display

What started out as a few firecrackers has grown into one of the most popular pyrotechnic displays in the region over the past 35 years. The Catfish Place in Arbela will host the 15th Annual NEMO Fireworks Display on Friday night, July 3rd beginning at dusk.

The name denotes 15 years of service, but actually this is the 35th year for the show, which grew from the Scotland County display to the NEMO display as it draws guests from across northeast Missouri.

Former owner Freddie Hauk originated the display in his final years at the restaurant. After the Mattingly family bought the Catfish Place in 1975, the program took off.

The fireworks display gradually expanded during its first decade, and finally got to the point that the family decided to go public with the project. The NEMO Fireworks not-for-profit corporation was started and donations were received to help fund the annual show.

“Just like everything else, over the years the prices kept going up, and we kept adding more to the show so we felt this was the best way to keep this thing going,” said Terry Byers.

The corporation receives donations from a variety of supporters in Scotland and Clark counties to pay for the fireworks. It writes just one check a year, and that goes for the pyrotechnics. All of the labor is donated by the Mattingly family.

“It started out with dad, me, Mark, Steve and some of the others, but most of us have gotten too old for it now,” Byers said.

Now the work has been passed on to the next generation with family members traveling from as far away as Georgia to do their part.

Terry is quick to point out that the Scotland County and Gorin Fire Department always have a presence at the show as does the Scotland County Ambulance Service. The Missouri State Highway Patrol provides traffic control on Highway 136, which slows to a crawl about the time of the show.

The labor of love typically lasts about 45 minutes. But there is plenty of work that goes into preparing for the show.

The first step is passing an FBI background check. As part of the increased homeland security, anyone participating in a public pyrotechnics display has to pass the security review.

Then of course there are the fireworks themselves. While the display starts with a basic package, the organizers put plenty of their own personal touches on the show. They spend plenty of time researching new fireworks and adding to the program while always shopping around for the best prices in an effort to keep the final price tag in the $3,000 to $4,000 range.

That process has led to lots of changes in the show over the years.

“It used to be about a third of the fireworks were just loud, now they have gotten much prettier and far more complex,” said Byers. “They have lots of shells and other pieces that all work together to produce some pretty spectacular fireworks.”

The pyrotechnic ground displays have always been popular as well ranging from a pair of tanks battling it out to an Indian shooting arrows. One constant throughout the years has been the American Flag finale.

The Memphis Democrat once estimated the crowd at 2,000 to 3,000 people taking in the show. Byers said they have no way of knowing how many people watch the program each year.

“We just love doing it,” she said. “Dad is a firm believer that if you don’t give back to your community, you won’t be in business long. This is just our way of giving a little bit back to you.”

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