Early Saturday evening, before it started to cool off, people enjoying the music at the Heartland Celebration of Freedom eschewed the rows of folding chairs out in the sun. Instead, they chose seats under a large tent.

“This is the place to be, right here in the shade,” said Scott Jones, preaching minister at Third City Christian Church. The church presents the Heartland Celebration of Freedom every year on the last Saturday in June.

Saturday’s heat was “probably having some effect” on the turnout, Jones said.

But he wasn’t concerned. What would happen, he said, is that people would straggle in until the fireworks started at about 10 p.m. Some of those people wanted to avoid the heat.

But the Celebration of Freedom, which started at 5 p.m., was still pretty busy in the early evening, he noted.

Besides, weather has often been a factor over the event’s 17 years.

“Last year we had rain,” he said. “The event started with a downpour.”

That rain came down at 5 or 6 p.m. “After that it was a beautiful night. People came out. So I think people will do the same thing tonight,” Jones said at about 6:30 p.m.

He predicted a turnout of 3,000 to 4,000 people.

Families wandered the grounds munching on kettle corn, enjoying inflatable games and a walk-through zoo. The event has such an All-American atmosphere it’s hard to believe Independence Day is still five days away.

Two of the more popular attractions were a free-fall tower and a bungee trampoline, both presented by Rock It. Horn T Animal Jungle provides the animals.

Central Nebraska Inflatables furnished a slide and an obstacle course. Families also enjoyed pony rides and other attractions.

In addition to kettle corn, people looking for sustenance had a choice of Sparky’s Wings, Mena’s Kitchen, Pineapple Whip, NaMaw’s Smokehouse and JoJo’s Gelato.

To help combat thirst, you could grab a free sample of cold brewed coffee inside at City Grounds, where you could also enjoy the air conditioning.

The goal of Heartland Celebration of Freedom is to honor first responders and veterans.

This year, the Freedom Award was presented to Rick Ehlers, who’s been a Grand Island police officer for 19 years.

On March 13, Ehlers was stabbed several times in a life-and-death struggle with Benjamin Melendez, 29. A grand jury concluded that Ehlers’ actions that night were justified.

At least a dozen Grand Island police officers were on hand to support Ehlers Saturday night. Some of them were involved in the call on March 13.

Music was provided Saturday night by Bernardus and Cotter Hill. Freedom isn’t free, but the Celebration of Freedom is.

The event is put on with the help of 200 volunteers, some of whom direct cars in the parking lot with great precision.

About 20 sponsors help the church pay for the celebration. Third City Christian would never be able to offer free admission without the sponsors, Jones said.

Contributors are divided into different tiers. At the top are six or seven platinum sponsors.

Third City Christian has a long connection with Independence Day. Back when it was still a small church, Jones said, a family organized a Fourth of July party each year.

Now, Third City Christian averages about 1,500 attendees on Sunday mornings and 600 people on Wednesday nights.

At the end of the night, the fireworks were launched in the field southwest of the church.

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I am the Cops & Courts Reporter for the Grand Island Independent. I welcome news tips!

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