While it has appeared on “Welcome to Vinton” signs on display throughout the year, the theme, “City of Lights” was originally a holiday season promotion for our town.
The phrase first appeared 35 years ago, in December of 1983, when the Vinton Area Chamber of Commerce’s Retail Bureau originated the slogan as part of its Christmas advertising campaign. Within three years, Vinton Unlimited replaced the Chamber of Commerce, but continued the City of Lights promotion. The Vinton Municipal Electric Utility has also used the “City of Lights” slogan while encouraging local customers to participate in annual Christmas lighting contests.
While the “City of Lights” logo includes replicas of the streetlights added to downtown Vinton in 1999, the original campaign was a tribute to the Kersten and Sanders light displays, which drew thousands of visitors to the area.
Larry Kersten had started his decorations around 1965, and was featured in newspaper stories as early as 1970. Then the reporter declared that the display included “hundreds of flashing lights.” By 1981, another story quoted Kersten as saying his display included 11,000 lights; by 1983, that number had increased to 14,000, and there were so many cars lined up waiting to see the displays that traffic concerns also made the news. By the late 1990s, Kersten’s display was more than 30,000 bulbs strong.
During those years, visitors to Vinton arriving via 150 north could see the courthouse lit up with strings of lights reaching the top of the roof and cascading down the four corners of the building. That custom had to stop when the new roof was installed, leaving no way to anchor the lights.
Kersten’s death in June of 1999 made front page news. Dwight and Bonnie Sanders also drew many visitors to their farm south of Vinton for many years. Dwight, who passed away in April of this year, had lots of help from family and friends over the Thanksgiving weekend each year to set up his display.
Heidi Kersten has continued the light display her parents began more than 50 years ago.