Many of us have had the privilege of attending the Airlie Luncheon Garden Party, also known as just the “Garden Party” to the locals. Not only are the flowers in bloom but so is the attire. The ladies show up dressed in floral sundresses, big hats, and colorful sandals. The men, not wanting to be outdone, don seersucker suits, bowties, and buckskin loafers. You can find your favorite beverage or the best of our southern cuisine under the white tents around the outer realms of the lawn. If you are looking for shade, the large live oak trees with dangling moss can take of that, while the blooming azalea bushes and all the flowers fill the air with a beautiful fragrance. The setting is truly an explosion of spring.
So what is the history behind this highly anticipated annual event? For this, we turned to Albert Corbett. Albert is the oldest grandchild of the Corbett family. The Corbett’s owned Airlie Gardens as a private residence up until 1999, at which time they sold the gardens to New Hanover County.
Albert and his lovely wife Paula took time recently to invite us into their beautiful Intracoastal waterway home, which adjoins the back of Airlie Gardens. While there, they offered up their stories and family heirloom photos.
Albert began by sharing the story of the mansion that was built in the 1800s that sat on the property. It was his grandparents’ home. This was not your average mansion as it was 4 stories, with 23 bedrooms and 24 bathrooms. He also recalls his family gathering to visit his grandparents’ house every Sunday afternoon. The gardens became the playground for him, his siblings, and his cousins. The children were always told to be back to the house by dark and not to go near the lakes. But with a big grin on his face, Albert said “Of course when the parents went inside the first thing we did was run straight for the lake.”
Not only was the mansion the home of Albert’s grandparents but it was also one of the two locations for the annual Azalea Festival’s Garden Party. Yes, there used to be two rotating locations for the annual event. One year it would be held on the grounds of Airlie in Wilmington and the next year in the gardens of Orton, which is a historic home and garden in Brunswick County. During the garden parties, Corbett recalls his grandparents’ home being full of people including movie stars, princesses from Florida, and dignitaries from across the state. All the food and drinks were served inside on his grandparents’ dining room table.
He said, “The spread was southern comfort food much like today’s garden party menu; fried chicken, roast beef, potato salad, and all the fix’ins and of course the customary open bar. As far as you could see the porches and lawn were full of party-goers.”
Another memory that brought a smile to his face was recalling when he was 16 or 17-years-old. He owned a 1959 red convertible Oldsmobile. He would offer to take the queens and the princesses on a ride through the gardens and with a chuckle, he said, “Of course, it was an offer the ladies couldn’t refuse.”
As Albert shared his stories he brought to attention, that like this past year, it was not always the best of times.
He said, “There were years when the country was in economic downfalls and we thought no one would come out to the Festival, but, it always went on. There were other years that hurricanes like Hazel, Fran, and Bertha had come through and left the gardens in total disarray. One of the storms took down over 1,300 trees. A few of these storms caused so much damage that the garden party had to be held somewhere else those years, but again, it always went on.”
Albert’s wife, Paula, agreed that the Azalea Festival and the Airlie Garden Party have experienced their share of obstacles. She recalled her experience serving as the Azalea Festival President in 2002. That year the Festival was taking place just six short months after the tragedy of 9/11. She was faced with the task of planning a Festival in the middle of a national crisis. She was approached with canceling the festival or moving forward with the celebration. She made a decision that everyone could get behind, have the festival with the theme “Salute to the American Heroes.”
Again, “It always went on.”
The Azalea Festival and the Garden Party have a long legacy of pushing through and overcoming. So, like those who came before us, we find ourselves adjusting and embracing the Festival differently this year. Some events are the same, but some are new ways to celebrate our city.
One of those new events is the Secret Garden Party. On Friday, April 9th at 2 pm get dressed in your finest garden party gear and enjoy the beauty that surrounds your home or business by having a garden party of your own!
Register your Garden Party today because one day we too want to look back like Albert and Paula and say … “It always went on.”
April 12-16, 2023