Kentucky Derby Festival

In 1935, Col. Arnold Strode-Jackson announced a new Festival that would turn Derby week into an event that would “eclipse the Mardi Gras or any other celebration in the United States.” His bold claim turned out to be true: the Kentucky Derby Festival has grown to a series of more than 70 events, over a period of two weeks, with a budget of over six million dollars.

Just like the City of Louisville itself, the Festival is scrappy, entrepreneurial and welcoming.  From the beginning, the festival pulled the people of Louisville together to show the world what they could do.

In 1935, realizing the potential that horse racing presented for Louisville, Colonel Arnold Jackson announced his grand vision for a Festival.  His program planned to: “add numerous stake races to the Derby, a river carnival and fireworks display, a costume ball to be known as The Pageant of the South, a gala wrestling or boxing match Derby Eve, a symphony concert, a State beauty contest, tours to historic and scenic parts of the state, demonstrations by such groups as the Olympic Horse Team from Fort Riley, Kan., and many other events.”

Col. Strode-Jackson was a decorated British Officer who earned the Distinguished Service Order and three bars in World War One. At the close of the war, he married Dora Berryman Mooney of Louisville, KY. He was a member of the British delegation to the Peace Conference in France, and came to Louisville in 1920. Col. Jackson was also an Olympic Athlete, winning a gold medal, and setting a record time in the 1,500 meter foot race.

Jackson announced the Kentucky Derby Festival on Jan. 19, 1935, with less than four months to plan, prepare, and execute the city’s first large-scale festival. He started by forming the Kentucky Derby Festival Housing Committee to provide comfortable, affordable housing to visitors.  He then named Evarest Nofsinger, President of the Louisville Real Estate board, as chairman. He would be responsible for finding available rooms, and preventing overcharging for accommodations.

The Festival Association immediately began a frenzied push to recruit locals, making it into the paper almost every day. Reporters were writing articles about them, and they were taking out ads to advertise for parade participants, housing and more. They began planning a boxing match, a bowling tournament, a beauty pageant, a wrestling match, a carnival/parade, a concert, and an Olympic horse show. They even tested out a bike race with locals to see if it was adequate entertainment. Col. Jackson and his team were pulling out all the stops to show the cities visitors the quality of his home.

Since the first festival, each year has had its own theme. The theme of the first Festival was the history of Kentucky, so the Association mobilized community groups and clubs to make floats for the parade that represented the history of the state. They asked for floats representing Indians, Pioneers, Revolutionary scenes, My Old Kentucky Home, replicas of the old Galt House, and River Steamboats.

The original Kentucky Derby Festival even had its own original composition. Composers submitted their work to be judged by Miss Helen Mitchell of WHAS. She selected from a long list of applicants, and picked “Cap’n Dee” Dower, of Bardstown, KY. Cap’n Dee had a successful career as a composer and performer who worked all over the country. Cap’n Dee would compose and perform his march with an orchestra during the festival.

The Association gave the opportunity to thousands of children to participate in the event. They urged kids to don colorful costumes and participate in the parade, recruiting by advertising in print, working with individual groups, and even offering cash prizes to “costumed marching clubs, truck clubs, and individual maskers.” Prizes ranged from $5 to $100. All told, they expected 10,000 carnival participants in the parade.

Executing the Festival was not trivial, and not everything went as planned. The Association was unable to plan their boxing match because of the short notice. Some events came through and others fell apart. The Festival was not without opposition either. There are references in newspaper editorials in which Louisville Residents tout the benefits of the Festival, while other residents who didn’t want the festival in their city. There’s even a reference to local ministers opposing to the sale of alcohol at the Festival.

Overall, the festival was a resounding success. Its final itinerary included a Carnival, Historic Tours, Professional Tennis Matches, the U.S. Army Equestrian Exhibition, Wrestling, and Horse Racing. The fireworks were not announced until April 29th, only days before the festival, only days before the show, and still drew a crowd of approximately 100,000. The parade had over fifty floats in it, eleven orchestras, and the largest number of bands ever assembled in Louisville, KY. The Reynolds Metal Company won the best float award.

Because of the success of the Festival in 1935, the city chose to make the Kentucky Derby Festival Association permanent, and continue throwing the festival in future years.  Even though the Festival was well-received through 1937, it was discontinued in 1938.

The Festival was started again with one event in 1956.

“Another effort is being made to provide a full week of fun for Kentucky Derby visitors. The first try was born a quarter of a century too soon, say fathers of the new plan. (referring to the ill-fated and ultimately flooded-out Festival starts of 1935-1937).

“Louisville is not the same tired old town it used to be. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, it has spruced up and is yelling for nourishment. This time the festival will succeed, they promise.

“The first move will be made this spring. It will be a giant parade of floats, marching bands and prancing horses. A sort of history of the horse race, put to music and flowers. And the story of industry and commerce told by the ingenuity of the float makers.

“Mayor Andrew Broaddus said yesterday he thinks Derby Week would not be complete without big name dance bands at the two leading hotels, a TV boxing card in the new Fairgrounds, and some outstanding night baseball attraction.

“The parade, he thinks, probably should be staged on Thursday evening, rather than Friday, because of the pressure of other events on Friday.”

— Adapted from the “Ruby Report” by Courier-Journal columnist Earl Ruby appearing on Sunday, Feb. 19, 1956.

And thus the Kentucky Derby Festival was born. Four men with an idea. A public relations man, a journalist, a Chamber of Commerce committee member and an active civic volunteer — Addison McGhee, Earl Ruby, Ray Wimberg and Basil Caummisar enjoyed lunch often, but one winter day in early 1956, a midday meal made history.

The four men knew what the Kentucky Derby meant to the city. It created a special spirit each spring, welcoming visitors from around the nation and truly bringing the little river town to life. They wanted more, more for its citizens, more for the locals who could not afford to go to the track. And that is exactly what they engineered, a literal pageant of the people. Dubbed the “Pegasus” Parade for the winged horse of Greek mythology, the first event was to symbolize the magic, energy and excitement the infant Festival was hoped to generate.

It was a simple premise — create some events at this unparalleled time called Derby that everyone could attend, no matter the size of their pocketbook. That first event was not only free to the 50,000 who showed up to watch, but included as participants groups from every walk of life in the community. The entire Derby Festival was founded on this one event and a meager budget of $640. That pattern would inspire the next four decades.

In the 1970’s, the Kentucky Derby Festival was reshaped again. KDF was behind the Great Balloon Race, Pegasus pins, the annual Derby Festival Basketball Classic, the mini Marathon, the Chow Wagon and more. The Kentucky Derby Festival became a two-week-long, regional spectacle enjoyed by people from miles around.

Now with more than 70 events, 23 full-time paid staff members and an annual budget of $5 million, the Festival looks much different from that first event in 1935. And yet the basic concept four civic-minded volunteers had in 1956 remains the very essence of Kentucky Derby Festival, Inc., today. Create events that entertain, are affordable and contribute to the common good of this community.

There have now been 59 consecutive years of Derby Festivals and many native Louisvillians have literally grown up with the parade, the balloons, the boat race, the music and the Pegasus Pin. Those around in 1956 marvel at the growth. Did the founders ever imagine their homespun parade would be led by the likes of John Wayne, Muhammad Ali or General Norman Schwarzkopf? Or that one pyrotechnic display to open the Festival would become the largest annual fireworks show in the nation? Probably not, but it demonstrates the spirit behind what they created, the unique vitality of this area’s citizens and the spirit and magic that was born in the first running of the Kentucky Derby — all of which has become synonymous with the Kentucky Derby Festival.

If you’re lucky enough to own a unique, hand-crafted wooden replica of the 1973 Pegasus Pin, you’ll be happy to know that it was made from wood reclaimed from Claiborne Farms. Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown Winner spent most of his life at Claiborne Farms, which bears it’s own unique story.