LINDSBORG – It’s been a blast, but Robert Ahlstedt is ready to extinguish the fuse on a 45-year tradition.
After this Fourth of July, Ahlstedt will permanently close Ahlstedt’s Fireworks, a seasonal business he operates inside the Crackerbox, a 30-by-44-foot red painted building that sits near the rural Lindsborg home he shares with his wife Cathy on a one-acre plot of land in the 200 block of South Coronado.
Inside the air-conditioned facility, Ahlstedt’s business has provided thousands of fireworks to generations of local and area residents since 1998. Before that, Ahlstedt sold fireworks from two tables in a parking lot and then on top of a bar counter in a small shed.
What started in 1974 as a way to make a little extra summer cash for this former Smolan Grade School principal and teacher soon turned into a lifelong passion for "things that go boom," as well as an opportunity to give back to the community.
"I always believed that everyone who came in here was important," he said. "I’ve had kids who came in here when I first started who now bring their kids and grandkids. I’ve served about four generations here."
After this year, though, Ahlstedt said he’s calling it quits. It’s not that he still doesn’t enjoy watching kids come into the building to stare wondrously at the massive array of firecrackers, sparkling fountains and colorful megapacks filling dozens of shelves and counters. It’s not that he still doesn’t love talking about all the different products he sells. It's not that he still doesn’t love composing dozens of notecards describing how his products work and attaching them to each counter.
It’s just that after 45 years, he and Cathy are ready to do something else.
"In some ways it’s sad, because my brother Gordon died in December, and he was always here every year and enjoyed it so much," Ahlstedt said. "But we’ve bought a camper, and we’re looking forward to spending our summers traveling, camping, fishing and sightseeing."
"And antiquing," Cathy Ahlstedt said.
Ahlstedt’s Fireworks opened Saturday and will close permanently on July 5 following a half-price sale on all remaining items. Last Friday evening, Ahlstedt hosted a small party for his former and current cashiers that featured a 45-year celebration cake and a lot of shared memories.
Anneka Peterson, a nursing student home from college, said she started working for Ahlstedt five years ago, when she was 14. She said knowing it was his last year in business made her sad.
"He’s been such a great boss," she said. "Other places don’t care as much about customers. He really cares about people and what they can afford to buy. It’s sad that a local business like this is being lost."
Brooke Patrick, a local grain trader, also started working for Ahlstedt about 10 years ago, at age 14, and continued to be a cashier every summer through high school. She said Ahlstedt and the other seasonal cashiers have been like family.
"All of us bonded together," she said. "We weren’t just employees, we were family."
Ahlstedt also knows his business, Patrick said, and it was always fun to watch him vividly describe how various fireworks operated to customers of all ages.
"Robert takes time to greet everyone and talks to them about what they might want, things they might be interested in," she said.
Describing the fireworks
During his 45 years in the business, Ahlstedt has tested nearly every item he sells and has attended numerous "shoot offs" during which new products are demonstrated by fireworks wholesalers.
When he displays a fireworks item, Ahlstedt will fill out a notecard giving it a one to six-star rating with an estimate of how long it will last and an often-humorous explanation of just what it will do once lit.
A few examples:
Nitro Express: "16 big shots of colored dahlias with white strobe will rev your engine."
Orbitan: "Not for the faint of heart. 4 flares go off and then it starts spinning and screaming as it rises."
Honkerer: "Sounds like a coughing goose! Will make you laugh."
Huckleberry Moonshine: "Blue and lavender droplets along with a crackle chaser will leave you intoxicated and thirsty for more."
Trump Train (yes, this really exists): "Who knows what it will do? With Trump, anything is possible."
"I have about 350 different kinds, and if you ask me what it does, I’ll tell you," Ahlstedt said.
In addition to the variety of fireworks products and helpful explanations provided, another attractive aspect of Ahlstedt’s Fireworks is the air-conditioned building. In 2000, a family friend donated a large air conditioner for the facility, which Ahlstedt said "changed our lives dramatically."
"People enjoy being in an air-conditioned building," he said.
Telea Strauss, a Lindsborg dental hygienist who worked for Ahlstedt throughout high school, said the air conditioning makes a big difference.
"People come in and stay a little longer," she said. "Everyone just loves to be here. Kids can ride their bikes to get fireworks. And Robert is so much fun to be around. He’s a jokester."
The jokester is still serious about calling it quits, though, and wife Cathy is somewhat relieved it’s finally happening. She said she’s looking forward to doing something else on the Fourth of July other than stocking dozens of cases of fireworks on the shelves.
"We start setting up in March, thinking about what we need and what is in our inventory," she said. "We could never travel during the summer, and now we can."
Crackerbox won’t close
Although the Crackerbox won’t be a fireworks store anymore, it will not be shuttered for good. The building is only used for selling fireworks nine days out of the year. The rest of the time it’s used for family reunions, church events, wedding rehearsal dinners and receptions, scrapbooking classes and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
"I originally built it for fireworks, but it’s used for many things now," Ahlstedt said.
After the last customer leaves the Crackerbox on July 4, the Ahlstedts will have a traditional family dinner, followed by a massive fireworks shoot-off. The next day, they’ll try to sell off as much of their inventory as possible.
"Several people come and buy more than $1,000 of fireworks on the Fifth," Ahlstedt said.
After that day is over, Ahlstedt will find himself in unfamiliar territory with no fireworks to store and no specific plans for the next Fourth of July.
"I can’t believe we’ll actually have a summer off next year," he said. "We’re excited."