Jeffersontown’s First Commercial Complex
Writer / Beth Wilder
Louis Oechslin was an immigrant from Switzerland who arrived in America in 1889. He married Jefferson County native Katherine Kaelin, and the two eventually settled just outside of Jeffersontown and ran a dairy farm on Taylorsville Road. They also operated a truck farm (that is, they raised garden vegetables intended for markets), and Oechslin grew some of the largest turnips in Jefferson County.
The Oechslins had six sons to help on their farm, and they were active members of St. Edward Church. In the early 1900s they hosted several of the annual St. Edward picnics in their orchard. These picnics were not small affairs – everyone in the county was invited for 10 cents a ticket, and huge crowds attended the events.
Oechslin passed away on April 11, 1951, at the age of 84. Five years later he was followed by his beloved Kate, who passed away at the age of 82 – she had lived on the same farm for 59 years. They were survived by their six sons, and by that time they also had 18 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
During the time the Oechslins owned their farm, Jeffersontown was just a small, rural area along Taylorsville Road, and its most visible landmarks were a water tower and bus stop on the town square. In 1959, however, a developer named Jack Durrett had in mind to make some dramatic changes to the landscape of Jeffersontown – changes that would greatly increase the town’s population and spur further growth. He proposed buying the 63 acres that comprised the Oechslin farm, in order to construct a major shopping center with a 220-home development directly behind it. There was one major caveat, however – he insisted Jeffersontown annex the land before he proceeded with the venture. Although two city council members abstained from the vote, approval was given to annex the area, which happened to be the largest single tract of land Jeffersontown had ever annexed up to that point.
Today, annexation would seem a normal course of events, but it must be remembered that at the time the Oechslin property was taken into Jeffersontown, the city had very little to offer a major commercial development aside from police and fire protection. Durrett knew from experience (he had already created similar neighborhoods and shopping complexes in Okolona, Shively and Fern Creek) that not only would the new residential and commercial area be a success, but it would also promote progress in Jeffersontown. In fact, many older Jeffersontown residents feel the Bluegrass Industrial Park might never have been created if Durrett had not convinced city leaders that Jeffersontown had the ability to handle and sustain added growth.
The Oechslin tract cost Durrett $250,000. He immediately began work on the subdivision he dubbed Harmony Acres, where all the street names would be musical – Harmony Road, Lyric Lane, Swing Drive, Ballad Boulevard and Melody Way. Shortly thereafter, construction began on the 24-unit shopping center that would face Taylorsville Road.
The J-Town Center held its grand opening on October 11, 1960, less than a year after construction began. It contained Citizens Fidelity Bank, Ranch House restaurant, Gateway Supermarket, Winn-Dixie, Taylor Drugs, and W.T. Grant Co., along with several small retail shops and professional offices. The development was an immediate success, and in 1961 Durrett created the post of promotion director for the center and hired Carl Shook, a veteran radio executive, to assist the various merchants with promotion efforts, as well as community and public relations programs. Within a very short time many new businesses had been added, including J-Town Bowling Lanes, Southern Supply, Duke’s Bakery, Lilyan’s Beauty Salon, J-Town Barber Shop, Locke’s Furniture, Phillips 66, McBride Furniture, Roy’s Sporting Goods, Gibb’s Florist and the J-Town Lounge. By November of 1961 plans were already underway to add another 35,000 to 50,000 square feet, for a total of 29 businesses filling the center.
On Tuesday, September 29, 1970, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the J-Town Center for the entertainment complex that would become known as the J-Town 4 Theatres, which just so happened to be the first four-theater complex in metropolitan Louisville.
In July of 1972, Sunday sales became legal in Jeffersontown, but it was up to individual business owners to decide if it was worth the effort and increase in payroll. Most had mixed feelings about the prospect. Joe Williams, the manager of McJohn’s Shoes, felt the people in Jeffersontown were used to the notion that Sunday should be a day of rest. Still, most business owners were willing to give Sunday sales a try, and it proved successful in the long run.
Needless to say, various businesses came and went over time – far more than can possibly be listed here – but the J-Town Center thrived under the management of Durrett, who personally operated the center for 26 years before selling it in 1986. During the years he remained the president of J-Town Center, Inc., Durrett saw to it that more additions and regular facelifts were made to the complex, and he actively participated in events to support the City of Jeffersontown and its various organizations, such as allowing the Jeffersontown Optimist Club to sell Christmas trees at the center. In fact, when Mayor Franklin Chambers was hesitant to allow the first Gaslight Festival to be held on the newly renovated town square in 1970, Durrett immediately offered to host it at the J-Town Center instead.
Now known as Jeffersontown Commons, the shopping center continues to flourish, providing residents easy access to myriad retail stores and businesses. The shopping center will always prove to be a favorite location in Jeffersontown, and several generations of Jeffersontown residents will no doubt tell you that the J-Town Center in its early years helped shape the world in which they lived. People still bemoan the loss of W.T. Grant Co., the J-Town 4 Theatres, and so many other businesses that were once a part of their daily lives. Time marches on, however, and things change, not the least of which is the landscape of Taylorsville Road. So far as Jeffersontown is concerned, however, that busy stretch of establishments and neighborhoods can thank a man named Jack Durrett for having the foresight to encourage growth in the tiny rural town that Jeffersontown was at the time, and the faith to know that given the chance, the City of Jeffersontown and its citizens would not only accept it, but build upon it in the years to come.