Tradition: a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another.
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As we head into the warmer months of 2020, thoughts of what we might do when the summer sun beckons us to spend more time outdoors than indoors, our calendars will begin to fill with places and events we wish to attend. Had conditions allowed and all had gone as planned, the Conesus Lake tradition known as the “Ring of Fire,” would have again been shared and celebrated by the people who live on the lake and residents of Livingston County and surrounding counties.
But, as my wife and I began to write the history of this yearly event, history itself repeated and the “Ring of Fire” has been canceled due to a national emergency for only the second time in 82 years. As our country rebounded after World War II and the celebration of the 4th of July returned to Conesus Lake, there is no doubt at this writing we will once again rebound from our current challenge. So, for now, we will look at just how did this special tradition originate.
‘Lake on Fire’
Based on extensive research, the first time the idea of lighting up the shore of Conesus Lake was attempted in the summer of 1938. As the June 30, 1938, Livonia Gazette reported: “Plans Completed to Set ‘Conesus Lake on Fire’ Monday Evening, July 4th.” And this is how the article began: “The Conesus Lake Sportsmen’s club gives out the following instructions for celebrating the 4th at Conesus Lake. Quiet please, hold the noise. At exactly 9 o’clock sharp, EST, Monday night, July 4th, the radios will signal “Now is the time for all good cottagers to light up their flares.” Grab your flare, stand it on the beach in front of your cottage, spike-end down, at a 45 degree angle; grasp the black ribbon in one hand while holding the flare down with the other hand and tear off cap; scratch the black end together until it fizzles; then for the best view, jump into your motorboat, rowboat or canoe and dash for the center of Conesus lake.”
The story that ran in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle stated: “One thousand bright red flames will be touched off on the shore in front of every cottage on Conesus Lake at 9 p.m., July 4. The display is being promoted by the Conesus Lake Sportsmen’s Club marking the campaign to sign-up one thousand charter members who will sponsor the Fish Rearing Ponds designed to supply forty thousand grown fish annually to stock Conesus Lake.”
And so the “tradition” of lighting up the shore of Conesus Lake began on July 4th, 1938 – 82 years ago and this very popular event began as “Conesus Lake on Fire.”
The first event was a rousing success. A story in the July 5, Democrat and Chronicle was titled “Lake appears like jewel in flare setting.”
The writer had observed the event from the Gannett Newspapers airplane circling the lake. As the flares around the lake began to go out the pilot, deciding to add his own touch to the festivities, switched on the planes powerful wing flood lights and then released a brilliant parachute landing flare, 1,200 feet above the center of the lake.
The 1938 event was such a success that in 1939 “Conesus Lake on Fire” became a four-day celebration of the first anniversary of the Conesus Lake Sportsmen’s Club first stocking of it’s Fish Rearing Ponds with fry, (very young fish also called fingerlings.) Activities that summer included a tub race in the rearing ponds, coon (dog) chases, trap shoot competition, a Fireman’s Parade and 5,000 flares. As it turned out, a pouring rain on the 4th put a damper on the flare lighting event.
What may be of interest to many current members is the fact that, although the Conesus Lake Cottagers Association, now the Conesus Lake Association, formally incorporated Sept. 24, 1932, cottagers actually organized almost 50 years earlier, The following article appeared in the March 20, 1889, Democrat and Chronicle newspaper: “Lake Cottagers Organize. A permanent organization was last evening effected at the mayor’s office by the cottagers of Conesus Lake. Horace McGuire was elected president and Henry Mathews, secretary. Exactly 100 cottagers were represented at the meeting. The object of the organization is to secure better transportation and other advantages.”
Other newspaper articles reported their involvement in getting better roads to the lake, better roads around the lake and in 1907 Rochester, Corning and Elmira Railway was planning an electric trolley to Conesus Lake.
Information in the Democrat and Chronicle implies the 1940 “Conesus Lake of Fire” went off as planned. According to the Livingston Republican, Boy Scouts headed by Bob Seeley, canvased all the cottages at least twice that year, selling flares and instructing the cottagers to light the flares at 9:30 o’clock Fourth of July night.
Upon further research, it appears some members were already looking ahead. According to an article in the July 12, 1940, Conesus Laker, it was known that flares would not be available in 1941. In the article, Sam “Flash” Buchanan, the publicity director for the Conesus Lake Sportsmen’s Club who came up with the idea of the flare spectacle in 1938, put together a list of suggested alternative activities for the 1941 holiday program that included sailboat races, a bathing beauty contest and a “Bang-And-Go-Back” speed boat race (Tooey style) among other suggestions. As an alternative to the flares, “Flash” suggested every cottager “...save a big wooden barrel and fill it with kindling wood to be set afire at 9:30 o’clock.”
Because the suggestion of the bonfires was vetoed due to safety concerns, when the summer of 1941 rolled around, the “Fire” was absent from the 4th of July activities, but not due to weather. That year, all fireworks had been prohibited by the state and gunpowder was first on the government’s priority list during a national emergency. All eyes were on Europe. But other activities for the 4th included three days of skeet shooting competition that could be observed from the Conesus Lake Sportsman’s Club new clubhouse and inspection of the rearing ponds, two of which held 7-week-old walleyes and the third held 11,000 three-week-old small mouth bass. One article claimed the members would have to count every fish they received to put into the ponds.
Our country went to war and the “Fire” would not return to the shores of the lake for another 8 years.
When the summer months arrived in 1949, the cottagers were more than ready to bring “tradition” back to the shores of Conesus Lake and thus began the event sponsored by the Conesus Lake Cottager’s Association.
Life without the constant backdrop of “war” had returned to our country and people were ready to gather at the lake for the 4th of July festivities once more.
“7,500 Flares to Ring Lake At ‘4th’ Fete” headlined the article in the July 3, 1949, Democrat and Chronicle. Accompanying the article was a picture of the Association’s officers holding some of the flares they would be handing out to the cottagers.
One year later it was 10,000 flares. The signal for the 1,326 members to light their flares that year would be “.... 24 aerial bombs which will be shot off simultaneously from points along the Conesus shore.”
In later years the signal would come by way of sirens from the Lakeville Fire Department and fire trucks positioned around the lake, a signal broadcast on radio station WHAM and by two parachute flares in 1976.
By 1950, two different titles would be used by newspapers when writing about the annual event “Lake of Fire” and the “Lake on Fire.”
The earliest documented addition of fireworks to the annual event was 1951. Although they added considerably to the evening’s festivities, they weren’t always displayed. Fireworks were missing for the Fourth of July event in 1957, 1963 and 1971. In 1958, the fireworks display moved from the shore to five floats (or barges) in the center of the lake. By 1960, it was 10 floats and in 1970 they used 11 floats. The reported number of flares varied from the 7,500 in 1949 up to 10,500 in 1953. Over the years the 10,000 number became the most common number reported.
Besides the Lakeville Fire Department, fire departments from neighboring towns stationed trucks around the lake supplying emergency services while the Sheriff’s Office directed traffic. Estimated crowds of 20,000 to 35,000 have been recorded over the years.
A unique touch was added to the evening in 1952. Timed with the lighting of the flares, a special plane flying overhead played “....recordings of many of the best loved of all American songs. Songs like the Star Spangled Banner; Battle Hymn of the Republic; Oh Columbia! the Gem of the Ocean; America the Beautiful and many others presented a stirring climax to a colorful commemoration of one of our most cherished national holidays.
Awaiting a return
Whether it has been called “Conesus Lake on Fire,” “Lake on Fire,” “Lake of Fire” or “Ring of Fire” the tradition of lighting the shore of Conesus Lake with flares has been anticipated and viewed by hundreds of thousands over the past 82 years and will surely return to entertain many thousands more in the future.
Like creating a United States of America, a very good idea stands the test of time. The idea of a “Conesus Lake on Fire” in 1938 as a fund raiser led to a tradition that celebrates our nation’s birth in a very unique and special way.
Lore DiSalvo is honorary historian of Conesus Lake and Long Point Park. Vince DiSalvo is a frequent contributor of local history and personal essays to The Livingston County News. A favorite topic has been Long Point Park.