New Year’s Eves have been a little uneventful in Owensboro in recent years.

But from 1994 to 2001, Owensboro had a downtown festival on New Year’s Eve called “First Night.”

Some years, it was free.

But most years saw a $5 or $6 charge for admission to the family-friendly events.

In 1994, when “First Night” began here, it was the 15th festival of the year in what we then called “Kentucky’s Festival City.”

That year, entertainment was offered at 20 downtown locations.

“First Night” started in Boston in the 1970s as an alternative for families who wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve together.

In 1997, the party began at the RiverPark Center at 6 p.m. with face-painting, mask-making and instrument-creating.

Families used them in the “people’s parade” through downtown at 11:15 that night.

What was then the International Bluegrass Music Museum picked out the old year with a bluegrass jam session.

And performances by local and nationally touring acts began at 8 p.m. at six other downtown sites — the RiverPark Center, Owensboro Area Museum of Science and History, First Baptist Church, Settle Memorial United Methodist Church, Daviess County Judicial Center and outdoors on the corner of Second and Daviess streets.

Most years saw an average of 1,500 — and once up to 5,000 — people downtown for “First Night.”

In 1995, the New Year’s Eve festival was used to display a new lighting system on the Glover H. Cary Bridge.

Martine Tompkins, who would turn 107 in February, and Blakeley McClellan, 7, — almost a century younger — “bridged the generations” on New Year’s Eve that year, flipping a switch at midnight to turn on 112 70-watt bulbs and light the bridge from downtown Owensboro to the Indiana shore.

That was Owensboro’s version of the lighted apple dropping in New York City’s Times Square.

David Edds, president of Downtown Owensboro Inc. president and the driving force behind the project, said Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati and New Orleans are examples of communities that have used bridge lightings to help spur new riverfront investment.

The 1998 event was canceled.

Organizers said they lost money in 1997 because it was so cold.

An unexpected snowstorm dumped 1-5 inches of snow on the area on Dec. 30, 1997, and temperatures plummeted below freezing as the new year approached.

First Night went on as scheduled, but some events were moved indoors because of the cold.

And attendance was down.

But the festival returned in 1999, to celebrate the dawn of a new millennium with a 400-shell firework finale fired from English Park at the stroke of midnight.

The mercury stood at 54 at sunset that day and downtown was filled with people.

But 2001 was the end of “First Night” in Owensboro.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301 klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.