From lining up parade participants to arranging for a flyover by Air Force fighters, Drolson has been the choreographer who makes sure that things have gone off without a hitch. In addition to being an arranger, he's also been a fundraiser, passing the hat to Ashland-area business owners to raise money for the annual fireworks display and generally doing what had to be done to make sure that thousands of Ashland residents and visitors could enjoy the celebration.
This year will mark the final such effort for Drolson, who will be giving up his fireworks-director duties after working in various Fourth of July positions for 51 years.
"I was going to give it up last year with 50, but then COVID hit and I didn't want to go out that way," he said.
Drolson began helping his father John Drolson arrange parade elements when he was 14. He was eventually asked by then-parade director James "Monk" Monroe to take over the parade, and some years later he was asked by then-fireworks director Cory Larson help out with the show.
It was a natural fit for Drolson, who from the beginning he says he was "nuts about pyrotechnics."
"I was always fascinated with fireworks," he said.
One Fourth of July, he and a cousin hid out in a hopper rail car parked on the old pulp hoist dock at the current site of the Ashland Marina to get a close view of the fireworks being launched there. It turned out to be a bit too close, as one of the skyrockets went off at low altitude and fragments of burning fireworks fell earthward and right into the rail car where the hapless youths were hiding out.
"Those flaming burning balls of fireworks were bouncing around everywhere," Drolson said. "We weren't supposed to be there, obviously, and we found out why."
Drolson said coming to the end of his Fourth of July career is an emotional experience. He is retiring because of health concerns and he hopes to pass on the fireworks duties to a firm headquartered in Minneapolis.
"It's a little sentimental, because I am a sentimental person," he said. "My wish was to have our fireworks show be the best in the area, and I think we accomplished that."
As Drolson prepares to retire, the Fourth of July parade is returning after a COVID-forced hiatus last year.
Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary McPhetridge said entry forms for the parade are now available at the chamber building. This year also will bring the return of the Stipe carnival.
"Barry Stipe will be bringing in his carnival for the first time in about five years, and it will run from July first through the fourth," McPhetridge said.
The current plan is for the show to take place in the parking lot of the Bay Area Civic Center, although that may change, she said.
McPhetridge said that while planning for the parade and other events is being handled on a fairly tight timeline, she anticipates no problem getting participants for the event, a considerable accomplishment considering that at the beginning of the spring and summer season it wasn't known what if any events would be possible.
"It's been a very interesting year; we are just grateful that we can hold these events," she said.
The Fourth falls on a Sunday this year, and the parade will be held on that day, beginning at 11 a.m.
"Once, back in the day, Monk Monroe tried changing the day when it fell on a Sunday, but the results were awful so we just decided to leave it on Sunday," McPhetridge said.
McPhetridge said people she had spoken with were excited by yet another piece of normalacy falling back into place. She said it was appropriate that the Independence Day parade should serve as a milestone.
"The Fourth of July is about freedom, after all," she said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Gov. Tony Evers issued his stay-athome order, Ginamarie Anderson — like thousands of other small-business owners — struggled to figure out how to make it work.
Anderson owns Harbor House Sweets in Washburn. She relies upon locals and tourists to stop in, drool over her displays of dark chocolate cashew bark, amaretto fudge and cake pops, and then take a few with them.
But the Evers order put an end to that. So like other small business owners, she had to get creative.
"When the pandemic hit we put in a walk-up window and my husband built a little deck where customers can stand at the window," Anderson said. "We put a doorbell in, too. I guess it cost a couple of thousand dollars, maybe. It was some work, but what we had to do."
Bayfield County now is offering business owners like Anderson grants of up to $10,000 to recoup exactly those sorts of expenses incurred as they found ways to stay open over the past year.
"I think this will help businesses that saw revenue losses, had to close their doors for a while and then businesses that had to make special arrangements for customers," Bayfield County Administrator Mark Abeles-Allison said. "A lot of things they may have done themselves, like remodeling, or purchasing additional computer equipment that allowed them to do business, should be covered."
The county has $250,000 to distribute to businesses that are in the county, have five or fewer employees and that meet some income-eligibility thresholds.
Applicants must be able to prove the expenses or losses they incurred are directly related to the pandemic, and that can include things like lost revenue, reduced hours, unpaid rent or utilities or upgrades like those that Anderson made.
"I really think any help right now is extremely important," Washburn Area Chamber of Commerce Director Melissa Martinez said. "Businesses really took the brunt of the lockdown because they were told to close their doors or make arrangements to keep people safe and still do business. They bought things like (personal protective equipment), takeout containers, gloves and cleaning supplies — that was a large expense. And the amount that they had to purchase in a market where things were inflated out of control because demand was so high. They had to shell out or get out. This will help them recover some of that."
Abeles-Allison said he didn't know what portion of the roughly 500 businesses in the county would meet qualifying criteria. But administrators at Northwest Regional Planning, which is running the grant program for the county, can answer that.
"They can walk people through and save them a lot of time," Abeles-Allison said. "They will say, 'Yes you qualify, fill out an application,' or, 'No, you don't meet the requirements.'"
Anderson already applied for and received a state grant that helped cover other renovations she made during the pandemic — she installed a large, clear window in the front of the store that allows customers to watch her make fudge or toffee with a new copper kettle and marble slab.
She's not sure if she'll apply for the new grants. Right now, she's more focused on gearing up for tourist season.
"We've been OK so far," she said Friday. "The community has been pretty supportive and school has been different for everybody. Our kids finished last week and even yesterday I had tourists start coming in. So we've been busy. I have zero complaints, really."
For questions on the grant program and application, contact Shauna Lindstrom or Sheldon Johnson at the Northwest Regional Planning Commission at 715-635-2197, or go to www.bayfieldcounty. wi.gov/grants for contact information.
If the COVID-19 pandemic did nothing else in Bayfield County, it helped residents understand just how important high-speed broadband connections are.
With hundreds of students learning from home and hundreds of parents joining them to work remotely, Internet connections were central to life in 2021.
That's likely what drove it to be the top priority among residents in the just-completed survey of county priorities for the coming year.
Cell coverage and broadband service ranked No. 7 among residents in 2020, No. 4 last year and now it has claimed the top spot among the 292 residents who completed the surveys.
The questionnaires asked residents to rank just about every service the county provides, from police protection and parks and trails to youth programs and highway maintenance.
As residents were completing surveys, so too were Bayfield County Board members — who didn't see broadband service as as critical to life as residents did. They ranked it No. 6, behind water resource protection, senior services, public health services, police protection and economic development.
"That may be a situation where board members are very familiar with how much extreme effort we're making to address poor broadband service quality," County Administrator Mark Abeles-Alison said. "We're been addressing that for several years now."
And for good reason. Broadband service today is a vital as electricity or phone service was generations ago.
"Certainly from a zoning perspective, we're seeing an unprecedented round of new construction, and when you talk to contractors, the No. 1 question buyers have is, 'What is the broadband service like?' People need that connection. You can't sell a house without it."
Abeles-Alison wasn't surprised that board members ranked water quality so high, with recent controversies about large-scale animal farms and a plan to bottle and sell artisanal well water — both rejected — top of mind.
One surprise is that substance-abuse prevention has declined steadily among both residents and board members in recent years, falling from No. 3 among residents in 2020 to No. 6 now, and from No. 5 among board members to No. 9 now — even as the pandemic has caused alcohol and drug abuse to surge across the nation.
"I think (substance abuse) is competing with other topics, other priorities, that have risen during COVID," Abeles-Alison said. "Those other issues have become more prominent as people have become more aware of them. You can see the increase in public health, for example, which has risen dramatically.
Public health didn't even make the list for residents in 2020, and ranked No. 9 among them this year; board members ranked it No. 3. And 80% of residents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the way the county responded to the pandemic.
Abeles-Alison said his biggest takeaway from the survey, which will be used to help craft the county budget, is that both residents and board members continue to rank road maintenance as a high priority.
"We see continued support for our 20-year highway repair program. It's been a longtime priority for the county and residents," he said. "It continues to have support across the county, with 64% of the population supporting the plan to reconstruct 8.6 miles per year. That is good to see."
A new addition to the survey this year asked how American Recovery Act money — President Joe Biden's post-COVID stimulus — should be spent.
Almost a quarter of elected leaders, 23%, said assisting businesses was the top priority for that money, closely followed by senior services at 20% then broadband expansion at 15%.
Residents spread the money around much more than that; 18% said the top priority should be broadband expansion, followed by senior services at 15%, aid to businesses at 12%, public health infrastructure at 11%, residential assistance at 11% and emergency preparedness at 10%.
"Both residents and supervisors had the same responses, in slightly different order, for the COVID aid money," Abeles-Alison said. "It gets at, as we have these one-time monies, there's an awareness and need to focus state and federal resources for our recovery."