The Christmas Lighting of the Licking County Courthouse and Courthouse Square

By Jay Barker, Tim Bubb, William Clifford & Spencer Barker

A National Historic Landmark located on the public square in downtown Newark, Ohio the Licking County Courthouse was constructed in 1876. This stately gray stone building is set off by its ornate architecture. The surrounding Courthouse Square is covered with a lawn filled with many large specimens of trees, community memorials and beautiful rose gardens. 

Local historians recall the Tower of the Courthouse was first lighted around 1928 as part of the national “Jubilee of Light” celebrating Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp. The lighting consisted of vertical stringers of white bulbs from the clock’s top to the ledge just above the roof. Also, a sort of crown of light bulbs crowned the peak of the tower. This white lighting was maintained for several years on a year-round basis.

The stringers were removed and the Tower was dark during the World War II period. Following the War, in 1946 C. Allan Milliken arrived in Newark to take over as executive of the Newark Chamber of Commerce. He saw a photo of the old Courthouse with a lighted tower, liked the appearance, and investigated the possibility of again putting the stringers up. However, in the attic of the Courthouse the lights and wires had deteriorated and were no longer usable. However, the idea remained alive. During the holiday season of 1948 new vertical stringers were installed on the Courthouse Tower, and this time colored lamps were placed in the sockets. This holiday look was a big local hit that drew many local residents and visitors into downtown Newark.

As follow-up Milliken and Bill Sherman, at that time Advertising Manager of the daily Advocate took the idea of a fully decorated holiday Courthouse to the Lighting Engineers at General Electric’s Nela Park Lighting Headquarters near Cleveland, Ohio. This and assistance from Ohio Power and other local contacts produced the final design for bathing the whole Courthouse with colored lights, plus multi-colored stringers, lighted wreaths in the windows and plastic bells. This plan and a goal of $10,000.00 were brought to the downtown Council of Retail Merchants. At this same time the Licking County Commissioners agreed to increase the capacity of the Courthouse’s electrical system.

The goal was reached and the decorations were purchased based upon the design recommendations of the GE engineers. A grand first lighting was set for the Friday evening after Thanksgiving in 1949. It started to snow on Thanksgiving Day and snowed through Friday, so the Courthouse and grounds were blanketed in new fallen snow. That evening, with thousands on hand, Santa appeared on a near-by downtown building and in a puff of smoke reappeared upon the north steps of the Courthouse. Following a brief program, which featured music by the Newark High School Band, trying hard to play cold instruments, Santa pulled the switch and the beautiful new attraction came to life.

During the first lighted Holiday season the new decorations drew rave reviews from visitors both from around the state and nation. Also in that first year, local pranksters managed to slip a record of “Mule Train” into the jukebox; which had been installed in the jury room of the Courthouse to play seasonal music from speakers in the Courthouse Tower. When that bit of hee-yah cowboy music blasted out between “Silent Night” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”, Newark made the wire service and about four column inches in TIME. The project has continued successfully since that first year, now grandparents are bringing their grandchildren to see the annual lighting and arrival of Santa.

Leadership of the project changed hands in the 1969-70 eras. At that time Officials from the Fire Department declared portions of the old wiring in the Courthouse unsafe, and portions of the building were not lighted. Also, the Downtown Association, faced with declining membership and interest decided to no longer manage the Courthouse Lighting project. Newark and Licking County faced the prospects of a holiday season with out the annual Courthouse Holiday Lighting.

At this point a group of community minded individuals at WCLT Radio led by Bill Clifford and the late Tom Dolan working together formed the Committee to Light the Courthouse. A successful community fund raising effort was put together and the Courthouse Holiday Lighting was continued. From the initial efforts of these local individuals we have evolved into today’s Licking County Courthouse Lighting Committee, Inc. In building upon the efforts of the initial volunteers and their commitment, leadership and strong community support we have restored the project to its original grandeur and beyond, with a full lighting program of lighted stringers, decorations and spotlights. This includes over 18,000 light bulbs, encompassing 8,800 on the building, and 9,200 in the yard and on the colorful decorations on all sides of the Courthouse and surrounding lawn and Gazebo. In addition the committee produces the annual arrival of Santa following Thanksgiving and the lighting ceremony.

At the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Courthouse Holiday Lighting the lighting design and program were expanded to feature more color on the building, a new larger Steam Engine “Newark” Train reminiscent of the role the railroad transportation played in Licking County and a new candy land theme was installed at the Gazebo on the Courthouse grounds. These special anniversary additions we designed to encourage children of all ages to join their families and experience the lights and sounds up close on the grounds of the Courthouse square.  

The Licking County Commissioners have continually recognized the positive impact the annual Courthouse Holiday Lighting program has made to our community. In 2000 the Commissioners authorized a complete upgrade of the Courthouse electrical system to enhance the Holiday Lighting system and insure continued success for future generations. The holiday lighting of the Licking County Courthouse has become a recognized landmark in aviation travel during the holiday season and as a cover photo in many regional publications. More recently the annual lighting ceremony has been taped and produced into a television program / video (holiday greeting) on a semi annual basis to reach those who are unable to join in the celebration or want to relive the excitement of the lighting ceremony

After the 2007 holiday lighting the Licking County Courthouse Lighting Committee announced the creation of an endowment fund for the annual holiday lighting of the Licking County Courthouse. The goal of this fund is provide for the continued success of the annual Courthouse holiday lighting and was made possible by a donation from a local long time benefactor of the project. 

For many generations of families the annual holiday lighting of the Licking County Courthouse and surrounding square have become an important holiday tradition. 2012 will be the 64th Christmas holiday lighting of the Licking County Courthouse and surrounding lawn. As we move forward we’re planning for the future and envision a project that will continue to grow and expand. We will continue moving into a more energy efficient era for the lighting design with installation of new lighting and decorations that will feature LED lighting. Our initial estimates for converting the lighting design to LED lights currently stands at four to five years, based upon the tremendous initial investment for LED bulbs and the advances in lighting technology. We continue to evaluate lighting design options and look forward to announcing a complete conversion to a more energy efficient project.

Following the 2013 Lighting, Jay Barker was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer and in March of 2014 passed away. In conjunction with his family, Beth and Spencer, the Courthouse Lighting Committee announced The John C. "Jay" Barker Memorial Carillon project. Through community donations the Jay Barker Memorial Carillon was purchased from Ohio company Chime Master in Lancaster. On October 5th the Jay Barker Memorial Carillon was played for the first time and will now provide music through all of Downtown Newark during the holiday season. With the passing of Jay, President of Courthouse Lighting for 20+ years, the Courthouse Lighting Committee was re-organized and expanded. Tim Bubb, a member of the committee for 30+ years became President and Jay's son, Spencer, became Vice President. Jeff Walker continued on as the Secretary and Nick Adams was newly appointed became Treasurer. Hugh Price stayed on as a Director, Ryan Bubb and Dave Bibler were appointed as Directors as well. In 2015 Jim Johnson joined the board as a director, and in 2016 Thomas O'Brien was elected to the board as a director.

In 2017 for the 69th Lighting of the Licking County Courthouse, the Permanent LED Lighting was unveiled to a crowd of 5,000 people in Downtown Newark on November 24th. The Committee successfully brought the tradition through a major construction project on the Licking County Courthouse and have secured its future for many more decades.

The Licking County Courthouse Lighting Committee is committed to the continued success of the holiday lighting program at the Licking County Courthouse and look forward to you joining us for the lighting ceremony on Friday after Thanksgiving.

Photography By: Nathan Arnold, Juliet Connolly, and John Rossignol