Downtown festival had humble beginning

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The first lighting of downtown Shelbyville wasn’t all that bright, but it has grown in candlepower in the past 25 years.

By Lisa King

This year Shelbyville’s Celebration of Lights will shine a little brighter than did the first one 25 years ago.

The downtown event, sponsored by SMART (Shelbyville Merchants of Retail Trade), to kick off the Christmas shopping season, was not always the spectacular event it is now, said those who set the wheels in motion more than two decades ago.

Kathy Yount was executive director of the Shelbyville Chamber of Commerce when what was then known as Light Up Shelbyville began.

Yount, now the assistant director of communications and marketing for the Kentucky Department of Tourism, said when the chamber began the event, officials just lit up a little 4-foot Christmas tree in Veteran’s Park across from the courthouse.

“That’s all we did,” she said.

“I remember standing on the corner down at the courthouse with the mayor, Neal Hackworth, and he got down on his hands and knees and plugged in the little Christmas tree in the park,” said Bill Matz, who later founded SMART. “That was it, and I thought, ‘There’s got to be something more.’”

The event was held on a drizzly Monday night, Nov. 9, 1987, and it was so low-key that it merited only one small, black-and-white photograph inside The Sentinel-News.

Matz began efforts to help the chamber to enlarge the event, and Yount said the ball really got rolling when organizers came up with the idea to combine Wakefield-Scearce Gallery’s holiday kickoff with the decorating of the downtown area for Christmas.

“The gallery had its opening in early November, and we thought, well, there was always a good crowd for the gallery opening, why not go ahead and decorate downtown early to coincide with that?” she said.

Matz said the chamber and SMART begged funding from the city and county and, with those scant dollars, purchased lights for downtown as well as banners, not to mention a bigger Christmas tree.

Yount chuckled as she recalled the first year, in 1992, that Light Up Shelbyville began to resemble the extravaganza it is now.

“I was standing on the courthouse steps tying a ribbon to a post, and it was raining,” she said.

Matz said it was around 1993 that he came up with an idea how to draw even more people to the festival.

“I thought, why not have some children come and sing? And then their parents and grandparents and friends will all come to hear them,” he said.

So he got on the phone and starting calling area schools and talking to their music directors, he said, and soon he had some children lined up to sing.

That was fine, he said, except he realized he had overlooked one thing, that he corrected the next year.

“I went and rented some big flood lights to light up the courthouse steps so the children wouldn’t have to sing in the dark,” he said.

Carriage rides were added for a quarter apiece, and food vendors began attending.

Yount said that although the chamber handed the reins over to SMART in the early 1990s, it remained heavily involved in the festival for many years.

“It wasn’t until about five or six years after we started organizing it that we started advertising it outside our community,” Matz said.

Charlene Nation, president of SMART, said she remembers in the early years when the group purchased some luminaries, but that didn’t work out so well.

“They were just little lights in paper bags, and they kept going out,” she said, laughing.

Nation said that amid all the glitter and glitz that surrounds the Celebration of Lights these days, the spirit of Christmas will be present at the festival in a very special and personal way.

“The van that is going to be given to the Hall family for Glenn will be parked next to the Christmas tree, and it will have a big red bow tied on it,” she said. “At six o’clock, [magistrate] Tony Carriss is going to personally hand the keys to Glenn’s mother. It will be a gift to them from the entire community.”

Hall’s son, 14-year-old Glenn, is disabled, and numerous community fundraisers have been held since spring to raise the $35,000 needed to purchase a handicapped accessible van to accommodate his wheelchair.

Yount said the festival continues to get bigger and better every year, with food vendors, merchants setting up booths, entertainment and music, carriage rides, and of course, photos with Santa at Tracy’s Home Furnishings.

“It’s definitely something the community can be proud of,” she said.


Celebration of Lights

WHAT:25th lighting of city Christmas tree

WHEN:3-8 p.m., Saturday

WHERE:Downtown Shelbyville

EVENTS:Children’s choirs, horse-drawn carriage rides, booths and Santa. Tree lighting after 6 p.m.

What Celebration means to merchants. Section B