How A Simple Love of Flowers Bloomed into a Grand Festival
Colorful Parades, bustling Street Fairs, charming Home and Garden Tours. Spectacular Fireworks, nationally-known entertainment, and the majestic coronation of a Festival Queen and Princess. These are the makings of the annual North Carolina Azalea Festival in Wilmington, North Carolina. But above all the pomp and pageantry, Mother Nature truly reigns. After all, her stunning beauty was the inspiration for it all.
The Azalea Festival’s roots go back to 1934 with Dr. Houston Moore who had the vision of transforming un-kept, swampy Greenfield Lake into a beautiful landscaped park. He enlisted the support of a coalition of local clubs, headed by the Wilmington Rotary Club, to bring the vision to life. It took nearly ten years of financial ups and down before the park finally blossomed, but once it did, its splendor inspired Dr. Moore to conceive the idea of a Festival to be held annually ‘when the flowers burst into bloom’. The first North Carolina Azalea Festival was held in 1948 and despite modest projections, drew over 60,000 spectators – including one at least as far away as Hollywood: movie queen Jacqueline White, who was named the first Queen Azalea. The following is a letter written by Mr. Hugh Morton, first Azalea Festival President in 1948, in response to a request for information about the Festival beginnings:
Dr. W. Houston Moore, M.D., a wonderful old gentleman who lived in the 1800 block of Market Street, had been active through the Rotary Club in beautifying Greenfield Park with azaleas, dogwoods, and other flowering plants. In 1947 he decided to invite all of the leading civic clubs in Wilmington to send a representative to a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce in its building behind City Hall to discuss the feasibility of holding an Azalea Festival that would celebrate the beauty of Greenfield, Orton, Airlie and other gardens around town. I was sent by the Wilmington Jaycees as their representative to that first meeting.
There are probably minutes somewhere that list all of those who attended that first gathering. I can recall Henry Rehder, Wallace Murchison, Kenneth Sprunt, Star-News Editor John Hope and Paul T. Marshburn as being among ones who were particularly supportive of Dr. Moore’s idea.
I had a business trip that caused me to miss the second meeting of the somewhat informal Committee, but upon returning to town I was advised that I had been elected-selected President of the first Azalea Festival. I did my level best to talk my way out of that, but Dr. Moore was a persuasive and determined guy, and there were promises of support from all around the room from others on the Committee.
When the first Azalea Festival took place in April 1948 the gardens were at peak beauty, the weather was perfect, and the Festival cleared $5,000, a profit we knew we had to have or we would never see the second Festival. Our first, and absolutely ideal Queen was Jacqueline White of RKO Radio Pictures. The top other celebrities were Ted Malone, who originated his coast-to-coast ABC Radio Network program from a platform in front of the Community Center on Second Street, and NC Governor R. Gregg Cherry, who crowned the Queen at Lumina Ballroom on Wrightsville Beach. The community was saddened when Dr. Moore died during the summer following the 1948 Festival, but the whole town was pleased to believe he died happy that the first Azalea Festival was a rousing success.