YOUNG MERCHANTS - The fireworks stand of yesteryear, where one could buy giant firecrackers, rockets and roman (sic) candles and the like, is no more. But it's ok to sell things like sparklers, cap guns, American flags and Tootsie that's what Bob, John, Jimmy and Billy Leavens, above, did to pick up extra money over the Fourth of July. They are shown at their 'fireworks' stand in front of their home in Medford. And what they don't sell, they can use to celebrate with. - S.O. Historical Society

Brothers had a blast with fireworks stands

When 12-year-old Jim Leavens looked up, he was staring into the eyes of a Medford fire inspector.

"I'm afraid we have a problem here, son," said the inspector.

It was July 1968 and Leavens was selling small Fourth of July fireworks from a fold-out table on the family's Oakdale Avenue lawn. He and his brothers, John, 18, Bob, 15 and Bill, 16, had been in the fireworks business for five years and never before had a problem.

"I was the only one running the stand that day," said Jim Leavens, "because my older brothers had summer jobs."

He said the inspector "pretty much" scared him, but remembers his mother was "fairly protective, so I'm sure she ran right out."

Helen Leavens listened to the fire inspector, who told her Jim was too young to be selling anything and the fireworks stand would need a business license. The next day a Medford planning department technician called and said a business license couldn't be issued because it was illegal to sell fireworks in a residential zone.

The fireworks went back into the house and the stand was shut down.

The memories were rekindled in July, when the Mail Tribune published a Southern Oregon Historical Society photo of the boys and asked whether anyone knew who they were. The Leavens family members were besieged with calls from old friends.

"We're older, have less hair now and weigh a little more," said John Leavens, "but who would believe we're old enough to be in the historical archives?"

Bob Leavens said the city's crackdown actually led to bigger and better things.

"That was probably the best thing that ever happened to us," said Bob, the second oldest brother, "because we went from one little fireworks stand, about the size of a lemonade stand, in front of our house, to having five stands out in the county, run by each one of the children and eventually with their spouses, going on for the five or six days when you were allowed to sell fireworks, for the next 20 or so years."

The fifth stand was operated by older sister, Mary Carol Leavens Day, who in the early years was just too busy helping her mother clean the house to help her brothers sell sparklers, tootsie rolls, caps and cap guns.

When she finished college in the '70s, she and her husband came back to the Rogue Valley.

"I was amazed," she said. "I couldn't believe how much the boys were making. That's when we got into the loop with them."

"That first year we sold about $25 or $30 worth and so we each made about five bucks," said Bob Leavens, "and gosh, when you were 8 or 9 years old that was a ton of money. In the end, we all actually earned enough money to pay our own way through college."

All the siblings credit their parents, Darrell and Helen, for making them who they are today.

"Mom and Dad did a great job of raising us kids," said John Leavens. "They didn't have a lot of money, but they were really behind the family."

"The whole reason behind this," said Bob Leavens, "was Mom and Dad wanted to instill in us a work ethic as well as a business sense, and they sure did."

Their father, Darrell Leavens, and mother, Helen Grenbemer, met while attending classes at Southern Oregon Normal School (now SOU). They married in 1940.

"In 1947, after the war, my father and his partner Oliver Gustafson came home and went back to work at the Coca Cola bottling plant," said John Leavens. "They decided they wanted to go into business and so they bought Whitelaw Candy Co."

"Bill Whitelaw moved to Medford from Chicago in 1927 with his candy-making equipment in the back of a pickup truck," said Bob Leavens. "He set up shop manufacturing handmade chocolate and confections."

Their father gradually stopped making candy and began concentrating on a wholesale business, serving convenience and grocery stores with food items.

He ordered the fireworks through his business and sold them at cost to the brothers, who tacked on a small markup.

Their father died in 1992 and their mother in 2003, but the candy company is still in the family.

In the mid 1980s the Leavens' fireworks stands were starting to get competition from "the guys who were setting up big tents," said Jim Leavens. "It got to the point where we all had families and it got to be more work than we anticipated."

So they stopped, but today still remember the times fondly.

"It's a wonderful family memory that we still laugh about and talk about," said their sister, Mary Carol Day. "We have lots and lots of fun memories of those times and I don't think any family is closer than we are."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

Share This Story