Gaslight Festival Celebrates City and History in its 54th Year
Writer / Kevin Gibson
Deana Karem grew up in Jeffersontown and, thus, grew up with the annual Gaslight Festival held in the downtown square. Her earliest memories of the festival come from the 1970s, when she and her siblings would ride their bikes to the festival to hang out. The whole family would also often attend.
Today, Karem is president and CEO of the Jeffersontown Chamber of Commerce. To say the festival is different today than it was in the ’70s would be quite the understatement.
“It was just a one-day, I think a half-a-day kind of affair,” she says. “It was held out here on Watterson Trail.”
This year’s version of the Gaslight Festival will feature 13 events over an eight-day span, including a golf scramble, 5K run/walk, balloon glow, the annual Gaslight Festival parade, car show, the vendor event in the square that anchors the festival, and plenty more.
But, as Karem notes, this big festival in a small town started small itself. The festival dates to 1969, when the newly formed Jeffersontown Chamber of Commerce decided to hold a street festival to celebrate local businesses and the community as a whole. Karem says the local Jaycees also held a festival around that time, and it was decided that the following year, the two festivals would merge into one.
It was around this time that the Jeffersontown Historical Society and Restoration Committee had completed a renovation of the old town square that included the installation of gaslights on the streets, to illuminate the square at night and offer a throwback feel to the square. This led to the renaming of the square to Gaslight Square, and that’s how the Gaslight Festival got its name.
The early festivals were fairly basic events, with the vendor fair and other activities like military displays, political speeches, bus tours through the town to highlight its history, a special church service, and the release of balloons to fly over the city, Karem says.
Evolution of the Gaslight Festival
The Gaslight Festival, now in its 54th year, gradually added events and days over time, and it has grown significantly even in the last 10 to 15 years. In fact, as Karem notes, every Chamber president over the past couple of decades, from Vicky Weber to John Cosby, has added their own signatures to the festival, helping to foster the growth.
Many traditional events have stuck around for years, including the longest-running Gaslight Festival event, the pipe-smoking contest, in which contestants light their pipe, and the contestant who can keep their pipe lit the longest wins. While the popularity of the pipe-smoking contest has waned over the years, Karem estimates there are still usually 20 or more who participate.
“In the old days, they probably had 80 to 100 participants,” she says.
More recent additions include a drive to promote the restaurants on the square, a blood drive, live music, the balloon glow and the 5K. But most importantly, the event continues to be a celebration of community. Karem says the Gaslight Festival will attract some 200,000 people, which is fairly significant for a city with a population of about 31,000.
“This year’s Gaslight Festival crew stands on the shoulders of so many of our business leaders who came before us, and had the vision to start a community and business celebration,” Karem says. “This community celebration has grown over the years to offer a variety of events for business, education, arts and cultural amenities, and the residents. The Gaslight Festival is a longtime tradition, and one of the most recognized arts and crafts and community festivals in the country.”
Jeffersontown Mayor Carol Pike called the festival “a homecoming,” saying it is “a week when we look forward to catching up with friends and family. Gaslight is also a time when we get to welcome visitors to our city, celebrate the many talents of the participating vendors, and continue to support our local business establishments.”
What’s Happening in 2023
If you’re planning to attend the Gaslight Festival this year, there’s plenty to do. It starts September 7 with the Gaslight Community Blood Drive, which will be held at the Jeffersonian in Jeffersontown Memorial Park from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.
On Sunday, September 10, the festival hits the road with the Gaslight Motorcycle Rally. A tradition since 2007, the rally is a 95-mile ride that begins at 12:30 p.m. at the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The ride includes four stops, and after the rally the participants will enjoy dinner, a door-prize drawing and live entertainment.
On Monday, September 11, the annual Gaslight Golf Scramble tees off at 8 a.m. After playing 18 holes, the winning teams and door-prize winners are announced at an awards ceremony. The following day, the Gaslight Festival 5K begins at 7 p.m. in front of Jeffersontown City Hall, and circles back to the finish line at City Hall as well.
Typically about 750 people participate, and once the runners cross the finish line, there’s an awards ceremony, power snacks and door prizes.
On Wednesday, September 13, the Business Appreciation Lunch salutes local businesses, with the City of Jeffersontown providing lunch and live entertainment for all local businesses and their employees, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Skyview Park.
The fun really gets rolling on Thursday, September 14, with the annual Gaslight Festival Parade. The parade starts at Jeffersontown Commons Shopping Center, heads east on Taylorsville Road, then goes south on Watterson Trail to College Drive. Bring the entire family.
Then on Friday, September 15, the Gaslight Festival Balloon Glow lights up the skies, as hot air balloons illuminate and glimmer at Skyview Park. The event also includes live music, food and children’s activities, beginning at 6 p.m. (weather could affect the Balloon Glow times).
This culminates in the Gaslight Festival weekend, September 15 through 17, which will feature more than 135 arts and craft vendors, 130-plus area business, as well as civic and nonprofit organizations, in the square and down cross streets offering plenty of shopping and discovery. Live performances from One Louder and other artists are part of the weekend, along with a kid’s day on Saturday morning and the Sunday car show in the 10000 block of Taylorsville Road. The pipe-smoking contest winds things up Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
All in all, the festival is a huge, citywide effort designed not only to attract visitors, but also to also celebrate the city, its businesses, its residents and its history.
“The Gaslight Festival is an amazing display of teamwork,” Pike says. “It’s a time for our city to shine and share the spirit of Jeffersontown with everyone.”
For more info, go to jtownchamber.com/gaslight-festival/event-information.