St. Matthews of the yesteryear looked drastically different than it does today, in the late 1800s much of what we know as St. Matthews was open farmland. Owned by families, many of which whose names we all know today (Brown, Rudy, Chenoweth, Massie, Monohan, Bullitt, Nanz, Aterburn, and Breckinridge), these farms became famous for their root growing vegetables - potatoes and onions. While there is much respect to be shown to the onion, it is the potato that truly became the champion of the time for St. Matthews.
Excerpt taken from the City of St. Matthews History: The St. Matthews Produce Exchange, formed by 200 farmers in 1910, grew to become the second-largest potato shipper in the world. Stock in the venture initially sold for $5 a share; by 1921, when more than 13 million pounds of potatoes were dispatched by rail from the Exchange to all parts of North America, a share was worth $75. St. Matthews was known as “the potato capital of the world” until 1946, when the Exchange closed its doors. The hangar-like Exchange facility, which included” a frost-proof building for the storage of 10,000 barrels of second-crop potatoes,” survives as a shopping center at 211 Clover Lane.
Of course as the years went on the value changed, growing the humble potato as the primary source of business changed to instead becoming one of the most robust business hubs in Louisville. But the community was not ready yet to let the potato and it's origins go, even after St. Matthews became officially a city in 1950. The love for the spud is captured permanently in the City's flag, but beyond that the fondness for the root of it all grew into the short lived but much loved St. Matthews Potato Festival.
In 1946 the St. Matthews Community Center, which had been organized to provide recreation facilities for local youth by the then Mayor (James Nolan) and several notable community leaders, sponsored the first ever Potato Festival. The festival was, at that time, was meant to be a fundraiser to help make that project a reality. In it's short life the Potato Festival was able to raise more than $19,000, which in today's dollars would be more than $300,000.
After 1953 the festival changed forms and names many times until ultimately it was retired, but that didn't stop the community from keeping the lore of the Potato Festival alive. Often, long time residents, could be found talking about their long lost homegrown festival and all the fun that they had while growing up and attending.
Want to learn more about St. Matthews and it's vast history? Check out the City of St. Matthews at the link below!