St. Matthews Revives Potato Festival
Writer / Carrie Vittitoe
Potatoes are likely not the first thing most people think of when they reflect on St. Matthews. Maybe they think about seeing movies at the Vogue Theater, particularly its run of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” spanning more than two decades. Perhaps they remember putting on their skates at the St. Matthews Armory. Maybe they just think about what makes St. Matthews an attractive place to live – its walkable proximity to parks and restaurants, its greenness and mature treescapes, and its easy access to major highways.
However, St. Matthews has a hidden history in its soil that is being celebrated in late summer by the Chamber of St. Matthews. The St. Matthews Potato Festival makes its return after a 70-year hiatus on August 27, 2022, in an event that will bring together young and old for a spud-tacular celebration.
We all remember learning about the Nile river in school – how it would flood each year, and how the remaining silt allowed agriculture to flourish in the delta region. The three forks of Beargrass Creek in Louisville did much the same thing through thousands of years, making the soil in St. Matthews both flat and fertile. As the land was increasingly purchased and parceled through the 1800s, owners would take their acreage and farm it. Many of them found that potatoes were a perfect crop.
Elizabeth Cleary, chief operating officer of the Chamber of St. Matthews, acknowledges that most people aren’t aware of the city’s background. “[St. Matthews] has a pretty extensive potato history – so much so, that the potato is one of the images on the city’s flag,” she says.
In the early 1900s St. Matthews was actually one of the largest potato-shipping centers in the country. According to a 1921 article from the Courier-Journal archives titled “The Gospel of St. Matthews,” some 13 million pounds of potatoes were shipped from St. Matthews to every corner of the country. The St. Matthews Produce Exchange was organized in 1909 as a place where farmers could unload their potatoes and come back the next day for payment. The Produce Exchange building still exists. In fact, it is now the Colony shopping center at Westport Road and Clover Lane. In 1910 a railroad line was constructed specifically to service the Produce Exchange and St. Matthews Ice and Cold Storage. St. Matthews was no small fry when it came to potato production.
Henry A. Holzheimer Sr. owned one of the largest potato farms in the area, which ran along Chenoweth Lane and Breckenridge Lane. After its sale in 1928, St. Matthews really began to change shape and become more of what we recognize as the city we see today. A tribute to Holzheimer from The Louisville Times says, “Sale of the Holzheimer farm, in fact, marked the beginning of the end of the potato-growing area for St. Matthews because Breckinridge Villa, built on the farm, became one of the first big subdivisions and erased the rural atmosphere.” It seems that the closing of the St. Matthews Produce Exchange in 1946 was the event that marked the true end of an era.
A reverence for its proud potato history led St. Matthews leaders to create a potato festival in 1947, and boy, was it a s-mash-ing success. One of the festivities was a historical cavalcade called “Potato is King” that featured a cast of 400 individuals. At the inaugural festival, there was even a Potato Queen who was crowned (Miss Jean Smither). Of course, the event wasn’t without some minor snafus. Apparently, an overloaded circuit caused a delay for the crowning of Miss Smither by Kentucky Governor Simeon Willis, but spec-taters didn’t let that ruin their day.
The potato festival was a big event for the city in years past, lasting several days and with the goal of raising funds for recreation facilities in the community. Each year the potato festival committee tried to find new and better activities and events to include. In 1949, for example, the fundraiser grand prize was a brand-new Buick. While that might have been a draw for adults, the kids were no doubt most excited by Daredevil Don Woods, who parachuted out of a hot-air balloon from 1,000’. At the 1952 festival, more than one million dollars’ worth of Army tanks and weapons were on display for attendees to view, and local celebrities Randy Atcher and Tom “Cactus” Brooks roamed the festival grounds. That year, however, marked the end of the potato festival.
Longtime St. Matthews residents still have fond memories of the potato festivals, so Cleary and her Chamber colleagues, in coordination with the St. Matthews City Council, decided that after the effects of COVID-19, everyone could use some old-fashioned fun. The entertainment commenced immediately when the Chamber leaders realized how many a-peel-ing puns they could use in their press releases to promote the new and improved potato festival. Suffice it to say that no one was a hesi-tater when it came to planning this year’s event.
This year’s festival event runs from noon to 6 p.m., and will be held in St. Matthews Community Park. There will be vendors and children’s activities, as well as some potato-specific amusement. “One of the activities is Spud Putt, where we’ll be putting a potato,” Cleary says. “We’ll have a potato mascot and a themed photo booth.” Another highlight of the festival begins at 2 p.m. that day – a Tater Trot fun walk through the park. There will also be a cook-off featuring tasty tater treats.
One of Cleary’s goals is to also have information at the festival about the city’s potato past, for not only residents, but also visitors who are intrigued by the spud story. In planning this event she had to root around for some information to add to her knowledge base, from having lived and worked in St. Matthews at various times in her life. “Thankfully, years ago a historical group that was attached to Waggener High School did a beautiful history that includes newspaper articles over the decades,” she says. “I was able to pull a lot of that. I was able to communicate with some longtime families, and get my hands on one of the original programs and copies of the posters.”
Keep your eyes peeled for additional information about the St. Matthews Potato Festival by visiting stmatthewschamber.com/st-matthews-potato-festival.