Writer / Beth Wilder, Jeffersontown Historical Museum
The name “Jeffersontown” is practically synonymous with the words “Gaslight Festival.” This delightful event has been an annual fixture in Jeffersontown for 47 years. Many people tend to believe the festival simply sprang from the early town fairs, but it has a much more interesting history than that, and it centers around – you guessed it – gaslights.
In the 1800s, Jeffersontown used coal oil lamps during the nighttime hours to provide a bit of light on the town square and a few surrounding blocks. In 1911, the Commercial Club proposed that the old oil lamps be abandoned for “a more modern electric light system.” Of course, at that time, there was no electricity in Jeffersontown, so in 1912, they held a week-long street carnival in the hopes of raising some of the $15,000 it would cost to get an electric plant and “secure a ‘great white way’ for the town.” Louisville merchants and Jeffersontown businessmen worked hand in hand to set up what they hoped would be a successful event for the entire county.
The August 10, 1912 edition of the Courier-Journal noted that the fair sported plenty of entertainment, including a dog circus, waltzing mice, an educated horse, Celina the Snake Girl, theatre acts, a mystic, popcorn and lemonade stands, merry-go-rounds and a Ferris wheel, in addition to various other acts, bands, hawkers, merchants and contests. The carnival drew in multitudes of people from all over the county. In addition to those who drove to Jeffersontown throughout the week for the fair, on Friday night alone, two special Interurban cars brought in more than 200 visitors — not bad for a town that only numbered 345 in the 1910 census.
The fair was a great success and paved the way for replacing the old gas lamps, which were not thought to be “in keeping with the progressive spirit of the citizens” of the town. Jeffersontown got the electric lights it wanted, and the old gaslights were scrapped, save for one lone lamp and post that would reappear about 50 years later.
In the mid-1960s, Jeffersontown was undergoing a renaissance on its town square, including the construction of a new City Hall building in 1966. The Jeffersontown Restoration Society, a branch of the Chamber of Commerce, was working hard to influence business owners on the town square to build or remodel in this same Federal Style, reminiscent of Jeffersontown’s founding years. Two very persuasive people in the Restoration Society were chairperson Peggy Weber, a realtor, and her friend Petra Williams, who was an antique collector, author and businesswoman. They, and several other highly influential society members, managed to convince all the other merchants in town to renovate their storefronts in keeping with the new restoration plan and to help clean up the town square in general.
About this time, a local church was remodeling and happened to find one of the original gaslights under the steps of their building. The unit was salvaged by Tom Caxton, an antiques dealer, who owned a fine antique store on Chenoweth Run Road. Peggy and Petra made one of their regular trips to his shop and became enchanted with the old gaslight. They decided that the newly remodeled town square should be lined with the lovely old gaslights, and they promptly took their proposal to the Jeffersontown Mayor and City Council, even offering some of their own money toward the project. The City agreed, and Ozzy Oestringer was hired to make reproduction lamps to line the town square.
The City funded the $2,000 to purchase a dozen gaslights (later increased to 20), and LG&E was persuaded to provide free labor to install them. The total cost of such a dramatic image change for Jeffersontown was $2,500.
The project generated a great deal of publicity for the town, and the Chamber of Commerce decided to embark upon a campaign to have Jeffersontown designated an “All Kentucky City.” To qualify for such an honor, Jeffersontown had to compete against other Kentucky cities in terms of progress, growth, living conditions, opportunity, etc. Because of the newly established Bluegrass Research and Industrial Park and the beautiful new appearance of the town square, as well as meeting all the required criteria, Jeffersontown was able to win the All Kentucky City award, not once, but twice – in 1968 and 1969.
In early 1970, the Jeffersontown Chamber of Commerce wanted to build upon the recognition the town had received. At a January meeting, they got their solution. As the story goes, during the meeting, Peggy Weber whispered the notion of a Gaslight Festival to Petra Williams, who immediately jumped up and shouted, “Peggy has the most wonderful idea!” The Chamber members loved the idea and immediately named the new event “The Gaslight Festival.”
Although the intent behind the festival was to showcase the newly renovated Gaslight Square and promote the businesses there, Mayor Franklin Chambers decided that the town square was a little too new, clean and fresh to risk throwing a party there. According to Jeffersontown News-Leader editor, Rob Patterson, the organizers said that was “the only bad decision the popular mayor ever made for the city.” Chamber President Jack Durrett came through for the city, however, offering the J-Town Center on Taylorsville Road (which he owned) as the venue for the new event. The organizers quickly accepted.
The first annual Gaslight Festival was held on Sunday, June 7, 1970 at the J-Town Center — the same week the Jeffersontown Community Fair was scheduled for June 10-13 at the Community Center. The Chamber wanted to be generous, and so included both events in its poster promoting the Gaslight Festival, which was the only publicity the Festival received that year. They also tried to come up with varied events that would add to the Community Fair, rather than compete with it. One of the events that organizers created to attract a crowd was a parade, which ironically began at City Hall and ended at the J-town Center, now the reverse occurs.
The first Gaslight Festival was a mild success in comparison with the Community Fair that year, but by the second year, things improved, since Mayor Chambers agreed to allow the 1971 event to be held on Gaslight Square, as originally planned. The second annual Gaslight Festival reflected Petra Williams’ love of antiques and crafts, with many more display booths and a large antique show.
The third annual Gaslight Festival in 1972 really got the ball rolling. Jack Durrett used the 175th anniversary of the founding of Jeffersontown as a way to promote both the city and the Gaslight Festival. The festival was moved to September 30 – October 2, many more events were scheduled, and the weather was fine. Several thousand people attended the event, and the Gaslight Festival became a firmly established event. By 1977, crowd estimates were at 150,000.
Ironically, the original purpose of the Gaslight Festival had dramatically changed in that short space of time. The businesses that were once being promoted during the festival had to close their doors during the event because of the huge number of booths placed at their storefronts. Still, that indicated the growing prosperity of Jeffersontown and its willingness to change with the times. The Gaslight Festival became inextricably linked with the City of Jeffersontown, and even today continues to grow and adapt with the city. Nothing says “Jeffersontown” more than the Gaslight Festival.