ELLIS — The Fourth of July for one Ellis couple is all about friends, family, fun and fireworks.
For their friends, it’s mostly the fish. And the cinnamon ice cream.
Stephanie and Ken “Beans” Martin have thrown an Independence Day party for at least 20 years.
The party started as a way for the couple to spend the holiday with family. Their daughter, Melissa, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident in 1994 when she was a teenager. The community rallied for them, with volunteers building an addition onto their 1920s bungalow that would accommodate a hospital bed and equipment so the Martins could care for her at home.
“We couldn’t leave the house, and it was just a way to have my family with me. I invited the people on either side of me, my next door neighbors, and that was it,” Stephanie said.
It grew from there, with the Martins inviting people from their church or those new to town who didn’t have family nearby.
“Before long, it was everybody,” Stephanie said with a laugh.
Melissa passed away in 2008, and the party now takes place at a small house down the street from the Martins’ home, at a small house with a big yard along Big Creek they purchased several years ago and are renovating as a guest house.
About 50 or so people joined them Wednesday, a much smaller crowd than usual, which the Martins attributed to the holiday falling mid-week. They have had more than 100 in past years.
Adults gathered at the tables under the shade of a large cottonwood next to the creek, while children chased each other through the yard with squirt guns. Up on the patio behind the house, Beans — he said no one would know him as Ken — along with Stephanie’s brother John Leiker, Hays, and Rod Augustine, Ellis, deep fried batter-dipped walleye and grilled hamburgers and brats.
Ask guests what their favorite part of the party is, and many will say the fish. There’s no particular secret to it, Augustine said.
“Just the batter, the good cooks and waiting to eat,” he said.
“Nobody else does it,” Beans said.
“One year we did ribs. We got a whole bunch of ribs that year, and everyone says, ‘Where’s the fish?’ ” he said with a laugh.
Shelly Stafford, Hays, said the fish is her favorite part of the evening.
“There’s two parts to that: the friends and the fish,” her husband, Tom, said.
“The friends first,” Shelly said.
The Staffords became friends with the Martins through High Plains Baptist Church, but said they don’t remember exactly when they started coming to the Fourth of July party. It’s been at least seven years, they thought. But they remember how they started.
“We crashed the party the first time. We knew that they were having a party and they hadn’t invited us,” Shelly said with a laugh.
The Martins provide the meat, and guests all bring a side dish or dessert. Augustine’s smoked macaroni and cheese goes fast every year, he said.
And then there’s the homemade ice cream. There’s chocolate and vanilla, of course, but almost everyone’s favorite is the cinnamon ice cream made by Stephanie’s sister, Faith Ann Scheck.
After the meal, many of the kids and adults gathered at the east end of the yard to set off the multitude of fireworks. The party’s usual fireworks master, Mike Hammond, was vacationing with family this year, the Martins said, but there was plenty to keep everyone entertained.
Martin usually coordinates a good show, they said, and last year’s included a finale that lasted more than 10 minutes.
Lucas and Tiffany Gurss, their daughters, Rylee, 4, and Brooklyn, 6, and Lucas’ mother, Ann, come to Ellis about every other year from Lawrence, Tiffany said. Ann is Beans’ sister.
“We usually stay the night, one or two nights, at someone’s house here,” Tiffany said. “This is our favorite town.”
Asked what her favorite part of the festivities was, Rylee was quick to answer.
“Family,” she said.
“I love every minute of it,” Stephanie said. Her plate of food sat unfinished, as she spent most of the evening visiting and making sure her guests were fed and having a good time.
“I like decorating for it, I like planning for it. And it’s all the people I love. It’s nice to be surrounded by them and give them a nice night,” she said.