PLACSO History

In the 1960s, Norm Klave started shooting an annual 4th of July Fireworks display for family and close friends on the sand bar in front of Klave’s Marina. Over the years various people participated in this event making a trek across the state line to purchase fireworks that were unavailable in Michigan.  Norm’s old houseboat was commissioned as command central.   Torches and lighters were utilized to blast the rockets into the sky.  Shouts of “Fire in the hole” and “All fingers accounted for” were heard as men and boys in frenzied glory splashed from the houseboat to the makeshift launching devices lighting fuses and dashing away.  At some point in time, Norm’s homemade cannon was utilized to signify the commencement of the display.  Word of mouth and the rumor mill were the only means of notification for this clandestine festivity, since these displays were not legally blessed in Michigan. However, blasting rockets and large booms are not an activity prone to secrecy and many people had an innate desire to be part of the fun.  Each year more and more people came forward with offers of donations or expressions of desire to be part of that inner circle. 

By the late 1970’s, businesses including King’s Service, Cottage Inn Pizza (now Riverside,) Portage Lake Trading Post, Newport Beach Club/PYC, and Three Kegs Party Store became involved.  Each year a tee shirt was designed and sold at these businesses to fund-raise. And Norm or Klave’s Marina stepped in to pick up the tab if donations were insufficient to finance his passion for explosives. Norma Dentler, nee Klave, at Klave’s Marina served as unofficial treasurer collecting donations and tee shirt proceeds and keeping track of funds.  Gary Locher, the service manager for Klave’s Marina began working side by side with Norm and various other crew members to shoot the displays.

Through the 1980’s there was still an effort to limit the scope of publicity due to the liability and legality of an ever growing but loosely organized event.  Nevertheless, the word of mouth communication and growing number of ‘inside the circle’ individuals began to inspire an ever increasing parade of boats cruising into Portage from the lakes up the river. Around this time, Norm befriended Ken Graham who became his supplier of bigger, better and louder fireworks.  Ken was a legal supplier and Norm was in possession of his Federal Firearms License so Permits were filed to legalize the display.

In 1991, the sewers were being constructed.  Ray Smit, a partner and project manager of the sewer installation at Portage Lake of McNamee, Porter and Seely, Inc, the engineering firm that designed and inspected the construction of the project, and his wife Donna, were living on Portage Lake Avenue.  They were members of Portage Yacht Club and they approached Tom Ehman about the possibility of MPS contributing to the fireworks.  They wanted to host a party for all of their contractors and thought their contributions could not only save our financially struggling display but also make them bigger and better than ever.  In a letter to their contractors seeking donations, Ray Smit wrote, “For as long as I remember, Klave’s Marina and, more recently, Tom Ehman’s sailboat marina sponsored the Fourth of July fireworks display. 

During more recent years, they have sought additional contributions from residents and businesses and sold T-shirts to help out.  Because of recent increases in cost of production, they wrote earlier this year that the event may not be possible.  Their cost, I understand is about $4000.”  Ray went on to suggest a $250 donation from each of these contractors. (As a sidenote, the Ann Arbor Fireworks Display was cancelled that same year due to lack of support.)

Tom Ehman and Donna Smit contacted Charlotte (Char) Schiller, nee Klave, at Klave’s Marina about organizing a Michigan Domestic Non-Profit Corporation (ID 800928538 completed 05/05/2011) and now has an IRS 501c4 classification.  While the Portage Lake Area Community Service Organization was being formed, Donna Smit and Charlotte Schiller, nee Klave, handled fundraising, opened an official checking account and administered the funds.   Due to the efforts of these people, $8050.82 was collected; the display was bigger and better than ever before and we carried forward a small balance to help secure the next year’s event while fireworks displays around the area were falling by the wayside due to rising costs and lack of support. Ray and Donna Smit moved away the following year.  Donna and Ray’s contribution to energizing our event will always be appreciated. 

Throughout the years since, we have faced many challenges with new regulations, rising prices and liabilities to the businesses involved.  After the 09/11/01 terrorist attack the Treasury’s ATFE Division took national control of explosives.  The new challenge was the required background checks and certification of our pyrotechnicians, additional permits, a computer based firing system for our class of fireworks, and ATFE approved shipping and storage facility.  The fireworks crew somewhat begrudgingly gave in to safer technology. However, when the switches were flipped on that first automated display, the entire show shot to the sky in a five minute boat rocking explosion of rockets and shells.  It was awesome but brief. Other challenges were figuring out just how many layers of plywood and deck understructure it took to keep a pontoon barge, made from an old pontoon boat, from submerging when a 12” shell was shot from inside a sand filled 55 gallon drum on the deck.  Currently PLACSO maintains nine barges that have their decks replaced on a staggered schedule.  There are many stories that are best not told but will be remembered in bouts of laughter when the old crew members gather.

2020 brought the dreaded virus and the inability to secure permits caused the first cancellation of our display ever.  It also brought other challenges.  Ken Graham retired and would no longer be suppling our fireworks or choreographing the show.  New suppliers needed to be secured and Gary Locher, Matt Bertram, and Howard Joll would need to take a more active role in designing the show.  Klave’s Marina was selling and no one knew if the new owners would participate to the level that the Klave family and employees had in the past.  There were also liability insurance issues.  It was not until late Spring 2021 when PLACSO was able to pull everything together and move ahead with the 2021 Fireworks. Many thanks to the fireworks crew for pulling the show together without Ken’s expertise, with new vendors and new product and a whole new plan for the launching, moving and storage of the barges and storage of the fireworks in such a short timeframe.

The original PLACSO officers, Tom Ehman, President, Charlotte Tackmann, nee Klave, Secretary/Treasurer, and Gary Locker, Pyrotechnician, maintained their commitment to the fireworks through PLACSO’S twentieth anniversary in 2021.  With the sale of Klave’s Marina, Char turned over the reins of the Secretary/Treasurer position to Matt Bertram.  Matt and Howard Joll joined the PLACSO team several years ago.  Their dedication to the event led them to become licensed pyrotechnicians along with Gary.  Matt, in his capacity as an accountant, assisted Charlotte with tax filing so, he was the natural choice to become treasurer. Melissa Kunnert, Nee Klave, joined the PLACSO organization this year.  Her marketing skills for new business NautiMI on the River will bring new talent to the committee.

From the rowdy rabblerousers of the early days to the dedicated group of individuals now at the helm, the Portage Lake Fireworks has remained a beloved community event.  We hope to continually improve.  We welcome comments and suggestions and we need your support. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Gary Locher.  No one has put more of their blood, sweat and tears into this than Gary.  He maintains the barges and equipment, he attends fireworks demonstrations and classes throughout the year, he applies for the majority of the permits, he works nonstop for days before with his team, setting up the display and days afterwards, cleaning up.  A very small group of people have produced this event for two decades now.  Volunteers are desperately needed to help with the cleanup the day after.

While this all started because of Norm Klave’s patriotism and infatuation with explosives, PLASCSO continues this tradition adjacent to July 4 as our nation celebrates the ineptness of Lord North and King George III, which caused the colonies to announce their independence from Great Britain and successfully break away from monarchy (by inheritance) government.

Finally, we would like to thank our community for continuing to support us through our successes and our foibles and for keeping our display safe throughout the years.

This History portion of the Website was created by Charlotte Tackmann, nee Klave, with some slight editions and will be updated as significant events occur.