On a late June morning at Shoalwater Bay, Kenneth “Poggie” Baker rode his motorized “Jazzy” scooter along the shoulder of Highway 105, against traffic. An American flag fluttered behind him as he lumbered along, cap pulled low over his face to keep out the sun. The 82-year-old entrepreneur headed to work, passing seven firework stands in the half mile between the casino and Chief Charley’s Smoke Shop. There, he crossed the road and motored to his “office”; a huge garage stuffed with cases of pyrotechnics.
Baker’s helper, tribal member Raleigh Anderson, checks the inventory: Excalibur, Chicken on a Chain, One Bad Mother, Loyal to None, “cakes” “backpacks” “canisters” and more. Throughout the day, firework stand owners will stop by to replenish their stock. Business is brisk as July 4th approaches.
Almost 60 years ago, Baker and his extended family opened one of the first Indian reservation firework stands in Washington State.
“My aunt, Myrtle Landry, her son Gene [Eugene Landry] and her husband Fred came up with the idea,” the elder says. “They got everybody involved.” It was 1965. Five family members invested $500 apiece to buy inventory. “Reginald Hunter and I drove a truck down to Canby, Oregon and filled it full of fireworks.”
They parked their 1950 Chevy pickup in an open field on the reservation. Their open-air display was set up on “a couple of saw horses with planks across them.” Their inventory was limited: M80s, red white and blue firecrackers, bottle rockets, fire crackers and fountains. Baker still remembers their first sale, to “four young guys in a yellow VW bug. They spent over $100. That was a lot of fireworks.” (Back then, firecrackers sold for a penny apiece.)
They sold out the first day and got another truckload. They did this several times, and then bought a trailer-full of inventory.
The next year they built two stands. Eugene Landry designed a mural for one of the stands. “It looked like a sunrise with red white and blue beams,” Baker recalled. “Gene was at the stand every day. He counted the money. It was Gene’s idea to raise the price of firecrackers to 4 cents.”
As the big holiday drew near, customers “came out of the woodwork.” They usually sold out before Independence Day. On July 4th, “We’d have a family show. We built a big fire out by the road; put a big pot on it, boiled hot dogs and had pop or beer for whoever wanted to stop by. It was a lot of fun.”
But there were also challenges from the Feds and the State.
In the mid-1970s, Baker got a call from a friend who worked at the State Capitol, who warned that US Marshals were heading to Shoalwater Bay to raid their stands. “We removed most of the inventory, just left a small amount on the shelves. Everybody was sitting out in the parking lot, waiting for them to arrive, even the kids.” Two Federal Marshals pulled up in an unmarked car. “One guy sat there with his hand on his gun. The man who came to the stand wore a pistol. He said they were here to confiscate our illegal fireworks. I asked to see his ID.”
The Marshall seized all the firecrackers and bottle rockets, but “had to leave the smoke balls because they weren’t illegal.” After the officer piled everything up, he asked Baker for a bag. “I told him no.” The elder chuckled. “Then he asked for a box… The answer was negative.” State Senator Slade Gorton sent Baker a letter, “telling me I was a communist-or Un-American. I wrote back and said I had a right to sell fireworks here, we are a sovereign nation.”
Baker mused, “I always thought it would be nice to have a painting of an Indian in a fireworks stand and a marshal with his hand on his gun, and three little kids peaking around the corner at them. Who was that guy who used to do all the Americana?
“Yeah. That would have been a hell of a Rockwell.”
Tires crunched on gravel as a truck backed up to the warehouse. Baker put his coffee cup down. He would have to continue his story later. Independence Day was just around the corner.
Originally published in the July 2021 Shoalwater Bay Tribal Newsletter. (Updated for 2022.)