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Five decades of fireworks: Mr. Fireworks, a family business, began in 1964 as way for kids to earn spending money

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mr. fireworks 1984

IN DEMAND — Customers wait in line to purchase fireworks at Mr. Fireworks in 1984. As laws loosened, customers could purchase bigger fireworks, so long as they signed a waiver saying they'd leave the state to set them off.

A family business that started with roadside stands run by young boys selling close-to-the-ground fireworks each summer has evolved to become a longstanding full-fledged business selling some of the most popular fireworks on the market.

Mr. Fireworks was started in 1964 by the late Ed Hudson, a Kokomo Police Department officer and entrepreneur. He owned a gas station, and he decided one year to purchase fireworks, set up a stand in front of the gas station, and let his young sons, Brian and Kevin, run it. Back then, only “safe and sane” fireworks could be sold: smoke balls, snakes, fountains, and the like.

“We’d get card tables, and we would sell to people. My brother and I would sit outside and do it however long we were out there. To me it seemed like we were out there for a couple months, but we were probably only out there a couple weeks,” said Brian, who was 8 years old at the time.

After the first year, Brian’s mother and stepfather, Amy and Tom Boonstra, took over the business side of the venture, as Hudson became too busy with his other business and fulltime job. With that pair overseeing the operation, Brian’s three stepbrothers also jumped in to help, and the five boys began running the fireworks stands at different locations around Kokomo.

The boys’ parents would take them to the stands, drop them off for the day, and pick them up at closing time. The kicker was that all the money the boys made was theirs to keep.

“We were 9, 10, and 11 years old, and we did this for us to make money,” Brian said.

Brain said he and his brothers were earning so much money for young boys, and they were blowing it all. When Kevin was 13, the five of them pooled their money to buy a car, a 1950 Chevy, that they shared – and even drove – before any of them were of legal driving age. They had a boat, mini bikes, and they were the people to be around every summer when the Howard County 4-H Fair came around, Brian said, as they had money burning holes in their pockets.

Eventually Brian said his parents got tired of seeing them blow so much money and said enough was enough.

“We did it for a few years, and they saw we were making too much money and blowing it. So it got jerked out of our hands,” he said. “They were like, ‘My God, these kids are making way too much money.’ So they kind of took it from us, and we started working for them. I don’t believe we ever got paid again.”

The boys continued working the stands each summer through high school, and the money was set aside for something less frivolous, their educations. According to Brian, the money earned from the stands paid for all five of the boys to go to college. Four of them attended IU Bloomington, and one went to Ball State University.

Brian Hudson

EXPLOSIVE — Brian Hudson stands inside his Gano Street store.

Around the time Brian went off to college, the fireworks business began to change. Now, the bigger “out-of-state” fireworks became legal, but they came with a catch. Those fireworks weren’t allowed to be set off in Indiana, though they could be sold in the Hoosier state, so customers would have to sign affidavits saying they would take the fireworks – which now included firecrackers, bottle rockets, and roman candles – out of state to set them off.

“You could not shoot them in Indiana, and you can imagine how many people truly took them out of state,” Brian said.

People were excited. There would be lines out the door at Mr. Fireworks of people waiting to buy the fireworks. Brian said they’d have a person at the door checking IDs, as customers had to be age 18 or older, and passing out the affidavits. It boosted the business “like crazy.” Now, the family also began supplying chain stores and mom-and-pop grocery stores around the Midwest with fireworks. Tom would travel overseas to purchase the fireworks himself for the business and to supply to other businesses.

The once roadside stand now was a full-fledged business. Tom was an accountant at Delco, and Amy also worked at Delco. She quit to focus on the fireworks business, and then Tom retired soon after also to focus on the business.

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Around that time, the boys slowly were graduating college – and they quickly became needed again as tragedy struck the family. In 1983, Tom was traveling to China to purchase more fireworks when he had a fatal heart attack. Afterward, Brian returned to Kokomo to help his mom with the business, and he’s been working there ever since.

The affidavit requirement continued for many years, allowing Hoosiers to purchase out-of-state fireworks, and then more changes occurred with the law.

“Somebody took it to court, got smart and stopped us from doing that (allowing the sales of out-of-state fireworks),” he said. “We knew we weren’t going to win if this went to court, so we set up a fireworks association in Indiana.”

Through that association, the Indiana Fire Users Association, members proposed setting up designated shooting sites in Indiana where people could go to shoot off these types of fireworks – and it passed. Now, when customers went to purchase the fireworks, they had to sign a card and pay $2 to join the club, allowing them to shoot off the fireworks from the approximately 20 shooting sites sprinkled around the state.

“The stuff you bought off of us, you could go and shoot any of it off at these designated areas. Again you can imagine how many people did that,” Brain said.

The law also escalated along the way and prohibited roadside stands. While a few were grandfathered in, Brian said around 99 percent of fireworks stores in the state today are in permanent structures, as became required by law. Mr. Fireworks’ first permanent structure was at 902 S. Reed Road before it was relocated to 1244 E. Gano St., which remains one of the Mr. Fireworks stores still today.

Brian said he knew the shooting site requirement wouldn’t last, so he and other members of the fireworks industry continued lobbying at the statehouse every winter. Finally, a bill passed in 2006 by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels that allowed the bigger fireworks to be set off in-state – and not just at designated sites – so long as they were set off on private property and during designated times.

That helped the fireworks business even more. While countless customers didn’t mind signing the affidavits or purchasing the $2 club cards, many did.

“You’d be amazed how many people really don’t want to lie and say they’re taking them to these sites. They did not want to come in and sign something that they were putting their names on that they knew they weren’t going to do. So a lot of people would not buy because of that. I wouldn’t say half the people wouldn’t do it, but I’d say a good quarter of the people would just come and buy the safe and sane stuff that they could shoot and stay away from the consumer fireworks,” Brian said.

Because of the change in the law, the overall sales of fireworks over the years has increased four-fold, Brian said.

“More people are buying it. More people are used to it, and now it’s become almost a tradition for every family to buy this stuff and shoot it of whereas before it was almost like shoot it off, run inside, shoot it off, run inside,” Brian said. “So over the years, just legalizing it has allowed the people that wanted to shoot it off but just did not want to break the law to be able to.”

Over the years, Mr. Fireworks has expanded. Each season, there are between six and 12 Mr. Fireworks stores located in Kokomo and central Indiana. This year, Mr. Fireworks has three Kokomo locations (in the Markland Mall next to PetSmart, at 112 N. Dixon Road behind CVS, and the Gano Street location), one Delphi location, one Lafayette location, and one Tipton location.

While the business is still in the Hudson family, Brian said it couldn’t be done without the many employees Mr. Fireworks relies on year after year, many of whom are college students and teachers. He said the revenue has paid for many students’ college education, including his own son and step-daughter's.

“It helped them get into college, and there’s different people that run the stores, usually college kids, suing the money for college,” he said. “It’s helped all of us. It’s been a long haul, but it’s been good to us all these years.”

Mr. Fireworks stores are open now, at least from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. As the Fourth of July nears, hours will be extended. Brian encouraged people to visit “Mr. Fireworks” on Facebook for the most up-to-date hours.