Key West’s Independence Day festivities start at 5 p.m. on July 4 with a community cookout around the Edward Knight Pier at the foot of White Street. TOM DAHM/Contributed

It was July 1976. Gerald Ford was still president. The world hadn’t yet met the boxer named Rocky Balboa and the long-haired Jimmy Buffett was still making the musical rounds in island watering holes. And the Rotary Club of Key West was planning to tie-dye the sky with its first-ever Fourth of July fireworks display.

The show became a tradition that has lasted 45 years and counting. But it all started in 1975, when Sandy Higgs approached Rotary’s then-president and suggested a fireworks display.

“In 1975, I appeared before the Key West Rotary Club, where Moe Mosher was president, and asked them to consider a fireworks display here,” Higgs recalled Monday evening in Key West. “At the time, July 4 was always a day to barbecue and go to the beach and out on the boat, but the town was pretty quiet back then, and there were no annual fireworks. But Pete Smith and others, along with Edward Toppino, took up the challenge and the rest is history. That first year the Rotarians grilled chicken, but kept running out. They had to run to Fausto’s three times for more meat.”

Higgs grew up in Mars, a small town in western Pennsylvania, where the volunteer fire department always set off Fourth of July fireworks and hosted a town-wide cookout to raise firefighting funds. 

“So doing the fireworks became the major fundraiser for the Rotary Club’s scholarship program,” said Higgs, who 16 years ago joined the club she had approached a quarter-century prior, and has volunteered at every Fourth of July since.

“With the expense of the fireworks increasing over the years, we are so thankful that the city of Key West has seen fit to help underwrite the cost of the fireworks themselves,” she said. “Make no mistake, our Rotary Club and all its members do a tremendous job providing hot dogs, hamburgers, beer and sodas, and rumor has it there will be an extra special treat this year.”

Every dollar raised during the all-day, family-friendly barbecue — and this year’s catered VIP sit-down dinner across the street from the Edward Knight Pier — goes directly into the club’s scholarship fund.

“This year, despite even the pandemic, our club, under the leadership of past president Jim Olive, provided local students with $47,000 in scholarships,” Higgs said. “This year’s president, Christie Martin, is out to meet and exceed those numbers.”

“Our community needs this celebration, this year of all years,” Martin told the Keys Weekly. “This is a comeback event for the whole community. Other events, like our casino night and golf tournament, also help our scholarship program, but this is the biggest one, and we can’t wait to welcome people back to this community celebration. The barbecue starts at 5 p.m. on the Fourth, and the fireworks start right around 9 p.m.”

“And to think all this started in 1976 because of a little town called Mars, Pennsylvania and a group of committed Key West Rotarians who said, ‘Why not!’” Higgs said.

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.