Arthur's got your 'End of the World Fireball'

Arthur's got your 'End of the World Fireball'

ARTHUR — Eight or so years back, the story goes, a woman was driving down a highway in rural Arthur when she suddenly saw what she described as a huge "chimney of flames" soar above the horizon.

She screeched to a halt, made a quick U turn and sped in the other direction. She was clocked at 85 mph when the police officer pulled her over and asked what the big hurry was.

"It's the end of the world," the woman screamed. "Terre Haute just got nuked!"

No need to worry, the officer explained. That's just Arthur's resident pyrotechnician, Larry Schlabach, whose fireworks fireballs only seem like the stuff you see in sci-fi movies.

The woman's experience inspired Schlabach to coin his annual display "The End of the World Fireball." If you haven't seen it, tonight's your chance: he and his friends, along with professionals from Athens-based Central States, will again provide the theatrics as part of the Arthur Rotary Club's one-of-a-kind Freedom Festival.

The big show starts at dusk at Jurgens Park. But, as Arthur village attorney Bob Crossman says, "We have a bunch of backyard pyrotechnicians who put on a pretty decent display as a prelude to the real fireworks."

Another reason festival regulars recommend arriving early: The show draws tens of thousands of people, many of whom park miles away on country roads to avoid the bumper-to-bumper traffic surrounding the high school football field and fairgrounds.

"I like to say I come each year with about 30,000 other people," said Terry Clark, vice president and general manager of Delbert's Clothing in downtown Arthur. "There's a steady stream of vehicles, starting at about 3 p.m."

Add all the rural spectators, who watch the show from their porches and decks, and Arthur Mayor Matt Bernius puts the audience at closer to 40,000.

"The downside," Arthur chiropractor Dr. Todd Zarbuck said, "is it is really crowded and hard to get out of after the show is over."

Three magical minutes

Schlabach makes a living building doors for CHI Overhead Doors in Arthur and has a side gig playing the fiddle for Mackville, a local bluegrass band. He's only been in the pyrotechnic business for a little more than a decade, following a life-changing trip to Florida.

The year was 2003. The place: Walt Disney World.

"I saw the fireballs there, and I thought they were awesome," he said. "When I got home, I began to learn how to make them."

Schlabach builds the containers that launch them in his garage. He won't get started on the actual fireball until today.

"To shoot them off is the most exciting three minutes of my year," he said.

Most area communities throw their big fireworks party on July 3 or 4. Schlabach's three minutes always come the weekend before the holiday, a tradition that started because of a screw-up.

One year, an electronics issue kept Arthur's fireworks provider from setting off a third of the batch the village had paid for.

So, Crossman said, "Our provider told us they would replace those fireworks the following year, plus give us a full regular show for the same price. Since the provider was already booked for July 4, we did it the Saturday before, and our show was a big hit."

And it stuck.

Kevin Huffman said the local Rotary Club has been working to upgrade the show every year since 1998.

"We didn't plan to make it a big event like this," Schlabach said. "We started dreaming and having fun, and it grew."

Organizers have two new treats in store for today's show.

There's the Ghost Bomb ("It goes straight up in the air in a column instead of spreading out," Crossman said) and the Waving Finale ("Just imagine fireworks going off in waves; it's amazing," Schlabach promises).

Schlabach also has a patriotic new fireball planned.

"I'm doing a red, white and blue fireball," he said, "something I've never tried before."

Ride of a lifetime

The show's signature performance has become an appearance by The Rural Patriot, who rides a horse in front of a series of sparks that rain down like a waterfall.

Hence, the name Schlabach uses for it — the "Niagara."

"The Niagaras are each about a foot long and an inch in diameter. They are full of magnesium, and he hangs them from a 500-foot-long cable 100 feet overhead," Schlabach said. "We light them, and they burn off in 90 seconds. It creates a spark just like daylight, but there is no sound to them."

The Rural Patriot is portrayed by Schlabach's cousin, Marty Miller, a wood worker for an Amish factory by day and a horse trainer by night.

Today marks his 11th ride. Eight were on a quarter horse named Doc; this will be No. 3 on the saddle of Snip.

Miller says people often get emotional when they meet The Rural Patriot.

"A couple years ago, a lady whose son's friend was killed in Afghanistan approached me as I took the saddle off," Miller said. "She told me it meant so much for her that I was riding for all the fallen soldiers. From that moment on, I realized I am not riding for myself — I am riding for the freedom of my country."

They take patriotism seriously here.

A few years ago, organizers delayed the start of the show after getting word that a returning serviceman, just back from a stint in Afghanistan, was a few minutes outside Arthur.

"It was about 15 minutes following our scheduled start, and I spotted him at the entrance," said Crossman, the show's public address announcer. "I put a battery-operated spotlight on him as he walked in, and the crowd was cheering, yelling and screaming. Soon, the serviceman took his place.

"Then, boom, went the fireworks."

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