On the warm evening of Saturday, July 8, families and friends met on Crescent Beach, fighting a strong breeze as they spread out blankets and opened up chairs for the 60th Annual Shelter Island Fireworks. Kids kicked off shoes and ran up and down the beach, playing in the dwindling sunlight.
As in past years, a medley of spectators attended the fireworks — some permanent residents, some summer families, some weekending on the Island and daytrippers who had ferried over to visit the Island and see the show.
Many of those gathered on the beach didn’t realize is that this annual mid-summer celebration almost disappeared. In early 2015, after the Shelter Island Chamber of Commerce announced it would no longer host or participate in the mid-summer event, members of what is now the board of Shelter Island Fireworks, Inc. created a GoFundMe page and raised over $25,000 dollars in just a few months so the show would go on.
The organization is now an independent nonprofit, relying completely on donations to sustain the beloved tradition.
Many attendees Saturday had strong roots to the Island. Husband and wife George and Phil Houseman, can boast of something special. They first attended the fireworks show 40 years ago. They lived on the Island for many years before moving to New Jersey and then Florida.
“Even though Florida is much farther than New Jersey, we still come up every year,” Ms. Houseman said.
Down the beach, Sherry Stelljes said she’s lived on the Island since 1983. She and her husband, Herb, came across Shelter Island while house hunting and have been here ever since. “I feel blessed every day,” Ms. Stelljes said,
Monica Klenawicus and Kate Davidson, who grew up here and graduated from Shelter Island High School together, settled in on the beach and spoke of the fireworks with affection. Ms. Davidson was with her husband, Matt, and their children, Aisley, 5, Elijah, 12, and Hayden, 10, while Ms. Klenawicus’s son, Jonathan Riviera, 11, and friend Bazzy Quigley-Dunning, 11, accompanied her.
Asked if they came every year, Ms. Davidson replied, “I’m a diehard.”
Though many of her classmates at Shelter Island High School have left the Island, Ms. Klenawicus said the fireworks drew old friends back together. “We’re all connected through Facebook, but at the fireworks you can walk down the beach and see someone you haven’t seen
in five years,” she added.
What is a local tradition for Islanders has also become a family tradition for many summer residents. Rachel and Lou Nowikas, who hail from New Jersey, set up their chairs and blankets on the shore with their children Claire, 13, Dan, 11, and Ben, 9.
“It’s a family affair,” Ms. Nowikas said. The Nowikas family, awaiting more relatives, said this year would be their 12th attending the annual gathering.
In the moments leading up to first explosion, the sun had set and waves breaking on the beach were audible amidst the chattering families. Perhaps the most unique seating on the beach was occupied by the Koller family, set to watch the show in their boat. But it wasn’t on the water.
The family had realized they couldn’t all fit in a car, so decided to tow their red boat ashore and watch aboard it.
“We ran aground and decided to stay,” on family member joked. A new form of “dry sailing,” as they called it, allowed them to comfortably celebrate the occasion and watch the show together.
The Kollers had various contingents; members came from Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.
“We sailed through here in 1976 and said, ‘We need to be here,’” Margaret Koller recalled about their arrival on Shelter Island. She, along with husband Steve, are now grandparents. On board the boat were family members Sharon, Steve, Adam, Christina, Will, Finn and Kerrie.
The last, lingering light had faded and spectators’ excitement was palpable.
Cheers erupted as bursts of color and light erupted over the bay. As the explosions sounded over the water, a group of kids sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” below a flag whipping in the wind. Viewers yelled, whistled and cheered as each new colorful creation lit up the sky.
At the end of the show, as per tradition, anchored boats blew their horns, accompanied by an ovation from the audience on land.