Mr. Feeney and Fireworks: The Prince of Punk

Dazzling displays of pyrotechnics symbolize the sense of exuberance and patriotism felt on the fourth of July, also known as Independence Day. One family helped ensure the children and families of the Quad Cities celebrated with a colorful bang! In 1898, John A. Feeney established a grocery store called Feeney’s Grocery which had several locations throughout its history. During the early days of his business, Mr. Feeney sold fireworks alongside the produce and dry goods.

Mr. John A. Fenney photographed by J.B. Hostetler ca. 1912

In 1927, Mr. Feeney saw an opportunity to grow the fireworks section of his business by renting empty store fronts in Davenport and Rock Island for the month around July 4th. He stocked his stores with a delightful array of firecrackers including: roman candles, lady fingers, Vesuvius fountains, and more. Mr. Feeney’s four sons: Herbert, John Jr., Loras, and Harold, also known as Pete,  helped their father at the various fireworks stores selling the fireworks to the eager children and making sure that the stores were protected from fire starters. The risk of fire loomed over a store packed with explosives, but there was only one close call that was quickly swept out the door. 

“Mr. Firecracker.” The Quad City Times, July 4, 2004.

Feeney’s Grocery garnered the communities affection even more by offering the first 200 children a free bag of  firecrackers including: “a sky rocket, a Roman candle, a package of Attaboy fire crackers, and a punk” on their opening day (Wundrum, “The Prince of Punk”).  Some may be wondering what a punk is—a punk is a smouldering stick used to light fireworks. It looks like a tiny cattail. For children who wish to celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks, this is a safer alternative than burning the tips of their fingers.

The joyous celebrations of lighting off your own fireworks display lasted until Janurary 1, 1938, when a law prohibiting the sale of certain fireworks was passed.  The law also provided a caveat which “only allows fireworks displays by municipalities, fair associations, amusement parks or other organziations with the permission city, town, or township authorities” (“Iowa Law Forbids Fireworks Without City or Town O.K., The Daily Times, 8).  For the citizens of Davenport, this changed how they celebrated this national holiday.

“Iowa Law Forbids Fireworks Without City or Town O.K.” The Daily Times, June 24, 1938.

Although this law probihited the sale and use of fireworks, it did not prevent the community members of the Quad Cities from remembering the Feeney’s and their fireworks stores.  One of the contributing factors for enacting this was the devasting fire that burnt down most of the city of Remsen, Iowa in 1936. It started when a fireworks stand exploded.

Arpy, Jim. “Who can Forget the Feeneys and their Fireworks Stores?” Times-Democrat, July 4, 1965.

Slideshow of fireworks advertisements:

Feeney’s Grocery was last located at 422 Brady Street and closed its doors in February 1970. Its history and legacy of fond memories of firework displays are remembered by all its customers.

Wishing you all a Happy Independence Day! 

(posted by Kathryn and Cristina)

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1 Response to Mr. Feeney and Fireworks: The Prince of Punk

  1. Marsha O'Connor says:

    Enjoyed this story. Pete was my dad, Thomas Murphy’s cousin. His son, Hal, lives in San Fran area. Hal was a pioneer of our modern computer technology at Intel. I had no idea the family was the center of fireworks in the Quad Cities.

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