Spencer On Fire: Why Fireworks Are Banned In Iowa

by : Dave Text

Every 4th of July in Iowa you're bound to here no end of complaining about the fact that one can't legally buy firework within the state's borders. If you know the sad, terrifying story of Spencer, Iowa the reason for this law becomes a bit clearer.

It was a sweltering 97 degrees on June 27th, 1931 in Spencer, Iowa. 100 people had already died that summer from the heat alone. It was dry, too; there hadn't been a drop of rain in weeks and no one was expecting any for weeks to come.

The only thing the folks of Spencer had to look forward to was the 4th of July celebration, which would mark 165 years of American Independence from the British Crown by lighting up the warm summer skies with as many rockets as they could lay hands on.

Otto Bjornstad's drug store was the epitome of the Iowan corner pharmacy; a Scandinavian-owned local business located on the corner of 4th and Main. If it were fiction it would be trite. Inside the store, along with the hair-tonic and the digestive aids, was a seasonal display that had all the boys in town (and a few of the men) practically hypnotized: a 40-foot long table packed end to end entirely with fire-works. On that day in late June there was a crowd of kids gathered round the table, eager for the 4th to arrive but for the moment grudgingly content to stare at the piles of rockets and dream.

What happened that day ha taken on a Mrs. O'Leary-like air of myth, and the exact details are lost from living memory, but the general consensus goes as follows: A young boy was playing with a sparkler, probably lit for him by one of Bjornstad's clerks.

Whether from some sense of mischief or by careless accident, the lit sparkler was dropped into the other fire-works on the display. The resultant explosion was heard in every corner of the city.

Conditions in Spencer were pitch perfect for a catastrophe. The heat, the drought and the Devil-sent winds conspired to set 2 1/2 city blocks ablaze. The citizens of Spencer fought hard for their town, but no fire this big had ever been seen or expected there before or since.

Courageous switchboard operators stayed in a burning building until the last possible moment sending out frantic calls for help to neighboring towns, but road construction delayed most of the aid. By late afternoon the Des Moines Register received a telegram that read "Town is Burning. Send plane with dynamite and fire-chief. Water pressure is gone".

By the time the fire was under control nearly 100 buildings in downtown Spencer were reduced to smoldering shells. Thanks to luck, providence and the bravery of Spencer's citizens, not a single life was lost.

The people of Spencer, Iowa rallied, and in time, with hard work and the generosity of their fellow Iowans, the town recovered, stronger than before. In 1938 Iowa, like Michigan and New Jersey before it, banned the sale and private use of fire-works.

Hard to blame them, really.