The Founding of Jeffersontown: 220 Years Later
Writer / Beth Wilder, Director of the Jeffersontown Historical Museum
This year (May 3), marks the 220th anniversary of Jeffersontown’s official incorporation as a city.
In the late 1700s, land grants were issued to veterans of the Revolutionary War. Peter Shepherd, who served with General George Rogers Clark in 1778-79, received a warrant for several thousand acres, including land which would later become known as Shepherdsville and Bullitt County. He deeded 500 acres of his land in the eastern part of Jefferson County to Frederick Geiger on February 5, 1794, and on May 6, 1794, Geiger deeded 122 acres of the beautiful forested ridge along Chenoweth Run Creek to Abraham Bruner.
Bruner had very definite ideas as to how that acreage should be used. Since the 1770s, the crossroads that would become known as the town square had been used as a resting place for people on their way to the port city that would officially be incorporated as “Louisville” in 1828. Since people were already stopping in the area to make wagon repairs and rest before completing their journey to Louisville, Bruner decided it would be a good idea to divide his newly acquired 122 acres into lots for homes and businesses. Tanners, taverns, wheelwrights and other establishments soon sprung up on the town square, and the city was officially incorporated as “Jeffersontown” on May 3, 1797.
Although it was common practice to name new cities after the current President of the United States, who at the time happened to be John Adams, the primarily German and Scotch-Irish residents of this newly established town agreed more with Vice-President Thomas Jefferson’s politics and opted to name their new home after him instead. Even so, proud of their city’s actual founder, many residents happily referred to the area as “Brunerstown” for the next hundred years.
Once the town was incorporated, boundaries were established and the tract was divided into 120 lots, each measuring 66-feet across the front but varying in length. Main Street, the very heart of town, would later become known as Watterson Trail, and Market Street, which crossed the center of town, would become Taylorsville Road.
The area encompassed by the town plat was officially considered “Jeffersontown.” Anything outside of those boundaries was considered “near Jeffersontown,” even into the early 1900s. The land surrounding the town was largely devoted to farming, and a handful of people owned rather vast amounts of acreage, which would be subdivided as time wore on. The early population of Jeffersontown was not large, by any means — the 1860 census recorded only 315 people.
The early 1900s saw the first major growth spurt in Jeffersontown. Many new business ventures opened, such as the Jefferson County Bank in 1904 and The Jeffersonian newspaper in 1907. In 1909, several local businessmen banded together to form a “Commercial Club” – much like a Chamber of Commerce – with the intent to make Jeffersontown a more “progressive” city and thereby lure more people and businesses to the area. This inspired the local ladies to create an “Improvement League” to beautify the town. It helped that the interurban streetcar began running between Louisville and Jeffersontown on May 2, 1903, thus allowing easy transport into town for those who normally might never have ventured here otherwise.
Part of the vision held by town leaders was to see an increase in settlement. The first subdivisions in Jeffersontown were Gregg’s Addition and Livingston Heights, both created in the early 1900s. They were followed in 1910 by Jefferson Heights Subdivision, which also included land set aside for a new, up-to-date school. This new area was laid out by Olmstead Brothers, the same parties who designed the Louisville park system. Remnants of their work can be seen in the names of roads such as Maple, Willow and Locust, which represented the trees originally chosen to line each street.
The 1920s in Jeffersontown saw a building boom but not for the best of reasons. Two major fires occurred on the town square in 1921 and 1925, destroying many important buildings. At the time, Jeffersontown only had what was known as a “bucket brigade” to fight fires — that is, local residents came running with buckets that were filled at the nearest town water source (which happened to be the Mill Pond, located behind E.G. Hewitt Hardware, currently Neutz Brothers Used Car lot).
The wooden frame structures of the time tended to be built closely together, so fires could, and did, spread rapidly. The 1925 fire was the final straw for the city leaders as the entire northeast corner of the town square was destroyed. They decided that from then on, buildings must be constructed of something far more sturdy than wood frames.
Dr. Shacklette, whose home and business was the first in town to be constructed of terra cotta tile, still stands near where the old Mill Pond sat. A more noticeable consequence of the 1925 fire was the construction of one of Jeffersontown’s best-known features — the block of buildings from the corner where King Southern Bank now stands to the Jeffersontown Hardware store.
Jeffersontown remained a small, rural town for the next few decades, although its population managed to double every 20 years. In the 1960s, land was annexed and the Bluegrass Research and Industrial Park was founded.
Jeffersontown has grown by leaps and bounds ever since. So, the lovely little town that was established 220 years ago this month to provide a tranquil resting place and a hub for business activity has come full circle, becoming a leading locality to live and conduct business.