When it comes to wacky floats in Wheaton's Independence Day parade, the Carlson family has it covered.
Every year, about a month before the Fourth of July, customers start walking into the Carlson Paint, Glass & Art Store on Front Street to ask what to expect this year.
They remember the family's detailed Fred Flintstone car, a heavy, yellow submarine and the popular Back to the Future float. They remember the giant teeter-totter and water slide, the bicycles flying down ramps and human cannonballs, the van being blown up by fireworks.
"The old-timers that have seen the floats over the years, and even people who've seen it only four, five years in a row, they give us a lot of applause," said Ken Carlson, whose grandfather opened the paint store in 1915. "People like to laugh and have a good time. They're always humorous floats, they're as humorous as we can make them. We never try for anything serious because we probably would fail at it."
While the Carlsons' floats have always been a highlight of the parade, this year will be extra special, as it marks the 100th time they have been part of the annual celebration. It also is the 100th anniversary of the store's opening.
To honor the Carlsons and their many years in business, the Wheaton Park District selected Ken, the oldest member of the family, to serve as parade marshal. Ryne Stolarz, a Special Olympics soccer player, also has been named a parade marshal.
The parade steps off at 10 a.m. Saturday near Hawthorne Boulevard and Main Street.
Even though the Carlsons' floats are elaborate, the family often doesn't come up with an idea until about two or three weeks beforehand.
"Usually it gets down to the last week where it's a super-big crunch because we have so many other things going," said Ken's brother, Keith. "It's hard to just concentrate on the parade."
Family members and Carlson Paint employees were busy working on this year's floats Thursday. One will coincide with the parade's theme, "The All-American Picnic." The other will be a nod to the 100-year celebration.
The family also brings a red, vintage popcorn wagon to every parade.
On the second floor of their business, dozens of photos of past years' floats are displayed on the wall. The black and white pictures, dating back to 1916, show simple, patriotic floats.
For years, the floats also had a commercial feel, with clear advertising. Ken's earliest memories of participating in the parade are shown in a photo of him mixing paint in a barrel, under a sign that read, "Your choice, pint to barrel." Another year, the family covered their station wagon in paint color cards.
But alongside the old photos are colorful images of the silly and creative floats, which started around the late 1960s. Dozens of dusty trophies sit nearby, recognizing the many times those floats won a prize for "most creative" or "most comical."
"There's been a few mishaps," Ken said, recalling the time his other brother, Mark, fell off a Viking ship float in 1976 and his niece almost got run over by the float. "You take some risks when you clown around like that."
But they keep doing it. It's to the point, Keith said, that "we're obsessive about it."
"Once you've been doing it this long you just can't turn back," Ken said. "You have to continue on and keep making floats, and trying to make them better and bigger and more enjoyable for people. We hope that the 100th one this year will do just that."