By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
What began as a way for a coal mining family to help put food on the table has evolved into the nation’s top distributor of consumer-grade fireworks.
The success story prompted one of those who gathered to celebrate Monday to refer to it as “the American dream.”
In the 1930s, Johnnie Marietta and his mother, Mimi, opened a small country store at the corner of Lone Star Road and West Highway 126 just outside Pittsburg. Mimi Marietta’s husband, an Italian immigrant, had been killed in the coal mines, and the family needed an income.
They were joined in the endeavor by Johnnie Marietta’s wife, Helen, and eventually his sons, John and Mike “Jake” Marietta, who wanted to supplement their teachers’ salaries with summertime fireworks stands.
“But their idea of fireworks was much different than ours today,” noted John Marietta of his father’s early days in the business. “They had a little table in the back of the store.”
During World War II, cattails scavenged from roadsides and farm ponds were dipped in kerosene for use as sparklers, because chemicals and materials typically used in fireworks were needed in the war effort.
John and Mike Marietta also had sons who joined the business, including Mick, Jacob and Jason. The company — Jake’s Fireworks — grew to become the leading distributor of wholesale and retail fireworks in the United States, with operations in six states and China. Cattails and kerosene have been replaced by injection molding and closely guarded systems that are unique to the industry.
In May, Helen Marietta died at age 86, having continued working until her death. She narrowly missed being able to see a milestone, Mick Marietta noted.
On Monday, her surviving family members joined with 100 employees, about 100 members of the Chamber of Commerce, and national, state and local elected officials to cut the ribbon on a 500,000-square-foot operation on 48 acres in the Pittsburg Industrial Park.
“This is an American company,” said Mick Marietta, now the company’s chief executive officer. “It’s an American story.
“This Thursday, the Fourth of July, people throughout the country are going to celebrate their freedom, celebrate their patriotism, and millions of people are going to be shooting world class fireworks coast to coast because of Pittsburg, Kan., because of this community, because of all of you.”
The building previously was occupied by Superior Industries, and the new occupancy also is a Pittsburg success story, noted Mayor Michael Gray.
The building had been vacant since Superior closed down operations in 2008. The closure displaced nearly 600 employees. The plant produced aluminum wheels for the automotive industry.
Jake’s, meanwhile, was trying to find a large enough and efficient enough space to serve as national headquarters for its growing operations — sorely needed, department heads said, because the company was bursting at the seams with just 100,000 square feet divided among three cramped buildings throughout Pittsburg.
“We had 400 shipping containers outside we’d have to pick product out of,” said Scott Moutz, a 13-year employee who is in charge of production. “It wasn’t efficient at all.”
City leaders worked on negotiations for nearly four years to keep Jake’s headquarters in Pittsburg. To help with the purchase of the Superior building — at the time the largest commercial space for sale in the state — the Economic Development Advisory Committee last June recommended approval of a $700,000 loan at an interest rate of 3 percent on a three-year term.
In return, the company must create five new jobs each year for three years. The company also made a sizable investment in renovating the building and installing protective measures such as fire curtains, fire-retardant paint, sprinkler systems and heat release hoods.
Had the deal fallen through, Jason Marietta said, the company might have had to move to another state that could accommodate its growing operations.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., one of several elected officials who spoke during the ceremony, praised the family members for their determination in building a successful business for themselves, for their descendants and for those they employ. He also noted the company’s contribution of $250,000 to the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides scholarships to children whose parents were killed during military service.
“This is the American dream,” Moran said. “When we shoot the fireworks, we’ll be honoring the American dream exhibited here in Pittsburg, Kan., by Jake’s Fireworks.”
State Sen. Jacob LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, expressed similar sentiments and read a letter of congratulations from Gov. Sam Brownback.
“The Southeast Kansas economy has seen some rough days, and while there is still work to be done, I believe it’s safe to say that the Southeast Kansas economy is on the rebound and that Jake’s Fireworks is leading the way,” LaTurner said.
A COLOR GUARD from First United Methodist Church Boy Scout Troop 151 conducted a flag presentation to kick off the ceremony, and members of the Pittsburg State University Pride of the Plains Band played several selections. In return, Jake’s sent each troop and band member home with a package of fireworks.