Countdown to the Fourth of July: A Fun Tradition at the Central Pennsylvania 4th Fest
Bernie Keisling starts to laugh when he thinks about his first Central Pennsylvania 4th Fest as executive director in 2003.
At that time, he wasn’t thinking about expanding the event. Keisling, who’s been the executive director of 4th Fest for 10 years, was just trying to survive.
“The first year you learn when you’re doing something,” he says. “The second year you modify. The third year you improve.”
And improvement has come every year since in the form of a parade, numerous food vendors, amusement rides for children, more stages for music and a 4k run that has gone from 200 participants to 1,200.
The roots of the Central Pennsylvania 4th Fest can be traced back to 1927 when the Alpha Fire Company put on a carnival and parade for the Fourth of July. The State College Kiwanis Club took over the festivities in 1978, adding a fireworks display which was presented at the current location of today’s celebration. Through the 90’s, the event was produced by Dan Barker and his family with the help of WZWW Radio and United Federal Bank and increased in popularity with the use of computers to choreograph the fireworks.
In 2001, Central Pennsylvania July 4th Inc., a community-led non-profit organization, was formed to continue the tradition of a celebration for Independence Day. The event has expanded every year since with a variety of entertaining acts.
Keisling starts describing memorable events from previous years: There was a giant, graphic waterfall made of colored water pellets that formed words and pictures one year. One of the last B-25 Bomber planes from World War II flew over the 2012 event. Keisling’s favorite stunt was when a man jumped out of a plane and used a 3,500 square-foot American flag as a parachute.
“It was so successful, we did it two years,” he says.
This year, a team of professional lumberjacks from Minnesota will be competing in a series of events featuring axes, chainsaws and water logrolling for three, 30-minute shows. “After each of their shows, we’re going to invite the public up to give it a try. Get on the log and see if you can do it.”
“People now know so much about our event, I’ll get emails from all over the country from people offering their activity or service,” Keisling says about finding different acts for the festival.
But many who return to 4th Fest every year come for the fireworks display. The 45-minute show has been a huge draw for residents and visitors alike. This year’s display features 12,500 different shells set off to a medley of traditional patriotic numbers, popular tracks from movies and television, show tunes and pop selections.
To get the full experience, Keisling suggests watching the display from a close distance, but for those who can’t make it out, the event will be televised on WHVL TV (see television provider for local listings).
But at the heart of 4th Fest’s extravagance is simply the tradition of having an event to celebrate history and educate future generations.
“What we’re establishing is a tradition,” Keisling says. “And people now know, when they come to the 4th Fest, what to expect. There’s a base set of things they can expect to see and then we put this little element of surprise in a couple areas every year to add more excitement to it.”
“We want to entertain and we want to provide memories for the kids,” he adds. “We want kids to grow up and say, ‘You know, when I was a kid, I use to go to a patriotic birthday party on the Fourth of July and it was memorable.’”
Click HERE for a list of events and to find out more about the festival.