Inside of a 200 square foot building painted off-white with red trim and topped with an aluminum roof stands a beaming 81 year old woman sporting an American, red, white and blue jumpsuit. With an open palm she offers yearly visitors homemade sugar cookies wrapped in plastic as they browse shelves for neon sparklers and whistling bottle rockets.
Betty Mead, a firework stand owner and lifetime resident of Milbank, South Dakota, has been running her booming business for 49 years.
Beginning in 1968, Mead began selling bottle rockets and firecrackers eight miles north of Milbank on Highway 15 next to the farm where she grew up. While her son now owns the land, Mead continues to send out flyers and decorate with pinwheels and lights every year to attract those driving towards Big Stone Lake.
“I had a nephew that wanted to [sell fireworks]…and I had had a new baby that year—his name was Todd--so we went together on it,” Mead said. “The first time I made any money on it, I bought an air conditioner for the house”.
While Mead’s nephew moved to Missouri after just a few seasons, Mead continued to grow her business with new clientele and bigger, better product. Her stand continues to attract visitors from the surrounding community and across the Minnesota border, drawing lifelong customers and those just passing by.
“Now, people want the bigger items, the great big items,” Betty said. “Way back 49 years ago I couldn’t even get those great big items with 300 shots or 250 shots, but now people want them. I do have some loud things, too, and some little kiddie items for the kids.”
While a definitive icon within the Milbank area, Mead continues to advertise her business through radio commercials, newspaper ads, and patriotic, red and white wooden road signs set up by her partner and grandson, Isaiah Thyne.
“[Betty]’s just crazy,” Thyne said. I don’t know any other person her age that can do what she does…Last year, I hung up a tire swing outside and she was swinging in it—like, what 80 year old lady does that?”
Other members of Mead’s family also help out stocking shelves and making sales, including daughters Cheryl Johnson of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Gail Keating of Flandreau, South Dakota.
“All of my aunts and uncles, if they’re around, will come down and help out,” Thyne said. When my cousins were kids, we all used to come up here.”
While the firework season may only last from June 27th-July 5th in South Dakota, Betty keeps busy visiting her six children, 15 grandchildren, and 23 great grandchildren throughout the year, along with baking and decorating the occasional cake.
“I tell people that I don’t know enough to quit it,” Betty said. “But, I enjoy it because it’s only for eight days. A lot of the old neighbors even stop in for a cup of coffee and a cookie—I always have cookies to give away here.”