On Jan. 9, 2003, Rick Conrad, a career firefighter in Hagerstown, proposed a plan to his union's charitable foundation.
The union, founded in 1966, had a long history of supporting local charities. But Conrad, who lives in Clear Spring, had something much larger in mind.
He envisioned a two-day event, with live music, free food and giveaways of cars, motorcycles and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"They liked it," Conrad recalled, adding, "They put it in front of our membership for a vote, and they passed it unanimously."
It took three years to turn the vision to reality, but in 2006 the International Association of Firefighters Local 1605 Foundation held its first Bonanza Extravaganza.
Since then, the event, held annually on Mother's Day weekend, has raised more than $1.2 million for local charities. And it has grown beyond Conrad's ambitious vision. His idea was to give away seven Chevrolets and seven Harley-Davidsons, he said. This year, eight of each were given away.
Thousands of participants camp overnight at the Hagerstown Speedway, and many more from all over the country buy tickets for the chance to win cars, motorcycles and a grand prize of $100,000.
In 2013, the event raised more than $135,000, which was divide among more than 25 charities.
"The idea is to raise money for causes within Hagerstown," John Murray, president of the IAFF Local 1605 Foundation, said. This year, donations included $13,500 to the Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Company, $1,000 to Boy Scout Troop 23, and $7,000 to the South Hagerstown High School football team.
The foundation rewards organizations that help with the event, such as the Clear Spring Band Boosters. Students and parents help set up and clean up, and the organization this year received $1,500. Members of the South Hagerstown High football team helped with parking and cleanup, said Conrad. Firefighters with local departments run games.
For $100, participants get admission to the event, as well as the opportunity to win the big prizes. Guest passes are also sold for $20. As in years past, all 10,000 tickets were sold in 2013, but Murray said they sell out earlier and earlier each year. Money is also raised from games of chance and carnival-style games. Ticket-holders must be present to win the Friday prizes, but don't have to be there for the Saturday giveaways. That's why tickets are sold in all 50 states, as well as overseas, Conrad said.
Organizing the event has become a year-round job. Since the beginning, the cars were from Hicks Chevrolet, about eight miles from Hagerstown in Green Castle, Pa. When Blaise Alexander Chevrolet acquired the dealership recently, it continued the relationship with the Bonanza Extravaganza. The motorcycles are from M&S Harley in Chambersburg, Pa. Both give good deals to the Bonanza Extravaganza organization on their vehicles in exchange for the goodwill and publicity of being involved with the event, Conrad said.
People who win the cars have the choice of keeping the car, taking cash or choosing another car from Blaise Alexander instead, Conrad said.
"That's what happened to one lady who won the Camaro," he said, adding, "She decided to get a Chevy Malibu instead, and she was able to load it up with all these options."
The first year, no prizes were given on Friday, and fewer than 900 people attended, Conrad said. Todd Grimes, the current president of the local, "came up with the idea of giving away 10 $1,000 prizes, but you have to be present to win," Conrad said. "Oh, my goodness, the next year our crowd went to over 5,000."
More recently, the typical Friday crowd is about 8,000 people, and 20 prizes of $1,000 each are given away.
Conrad said he was worried that heavy rain during the 2013 event would keep people away, but about 6,000 showed up Friday for the prize drawings, music, a rock-climbing wall, food, games of chance and carnival-style games.
"With fewer people, this year was our best Friday night ever," he said.
"People look forward to it every year," said Murray. "It's just a blast."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun