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The Times of Our Lives: Celebrating the Azalea

Summerville, South Carolina

Although Summerville’s earliest settlers date as far back as the late 1600s, the town’s golden era must surely be the first part of the 20th century. It had long been a refuge for coastal residents who fled the punishing heat and relentless mosquitoes for which the Lowcountry is known but it was about to become world famous. In 1899, the International Congress of Physicians proclaimed Summerville one of the two best places in the world for people suffering from lung disorders. The turpentine scent emitted by the pine trees was considered to be the cure for a variety of respiratory ailments. A long time resident remembers it well.

"It was so popular," Helen Tovey says. "It was world famous because of the pine air. People even came from Europe. It was prescribed by doctors."

Suddenly the town of Summerville became a destination not only for those seeking to breathe in the healing atmosphere but for travelers wishing to experience the famed southern beauty of the "flower town in the pines." The town boomed as hotels and inns were built to accommodate the many visitors. And, as so often happens, more than a few decided to stay.

Helen Anderson Waring Tovey was just five years old when she moved to Summerville in 1926. It was the middle of the Roaring 20s – "they were wild," she recalls – and life was good. Just a few years later, the Great Depression hit and times were tough.

"But we all pulled together," Helen says with a smile. "We got through that terrible Depression." By 1934, a 13-year-old Helen was attending Summerville High School and football was just as exciting then as it is now. She recalls that the "green wave" became the team nickname during the mid-1930s. Prosperity began to return and her father, who was a bookkeeper for the local lumber company, opened an office on Main Street. In 1937, the Anderson family built a home in Summerville.

Residents of the tightly knit community socialized often and one favorite dance spot was the Pine Forest Inn where people gathered to cut the rug. Built in 1891, the Pine Forest Inn was possibly the most opulent resort in town. The building held a large central rotunda with two side wings set around a courtyard. Two piazzas allowed revelers to step outside for a breath of fresh air under the pines. Up to 250 people could be seated in the main dining room and there were many smaller gathering spots, including the Rocking Chair Room which boasted more than 100 rockers. Famous visitors during the early 1900s included Presidents – both Roosevelts and Taft – as well as Elizabeth Arden, Efrem Zimbalist Sr. and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The Pine Forest Inn was the ultimate in resorts, offering the most modern guest rooms, impeccable service and unequaled amenities. These ranged from games such as tennis, croquet and bowling to tea parties and tours of the on-site Pinehurst Tea Garden. The 18-hole golf course was the second one built in South Carolina. More adventurous guests took advantage of hunting parties during the season and the Pine Forest Inn provided hounds and horses for those who did not bring their own. The Pine Forest Inn flourished throughout the Jazz Age and into the late 1930s.

Spring seems to burst into the Lowcountry, especially in classic Southern towns such as Summerville, starting with the demure beauty of camellias which often arrive with the last frost of winter. The azaleas burst into bloom in colors ranging from purest white to a deep fuchsia and are followed by the large, fragrant blooms of magnolia trees. No wonder Summerville celebrates its most flamboyant season with a festival.

The current Flowertown Festival dates back to 1972 when Jean Gantt built the annual event on the foundation of a Young Women’s Christian Organization (YWCO) fund-raiser. But decades earlier, in 1941, the town of Summerville celebrated the first Azalea Festival, a four-day event that included dances, concerts, a parade and a formal ball.

Helen Anderson came of age during the early years of World War II. The attack on Pearl Harbor had not yet occurred and life was exciting and wonderful as she planned her outfits for the various activities of the Flower Festival. She danced her way through a sock hop at the high school gym and square-danced with the fellas before donning a white formal dress shot through with silver thread for the grand ball on Saturday night. The soundtrack for the events included the big band sounds of Glenn Miller and Harry James and, on a side trip to Stoney Field in Charleston, Helen and her friends were entertained by Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. There was a new singer, too, who was attracting interest – Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.

"It was shoulder to shoulder," Helen says about seeing Tommy Dorsey. "You could hardly dance." Remembering the Azalea Festival Ball, Helen says it was all about having fun with friends. The Roaring ‘20s might have been wild, she explains, but post-depression life was more subdued. There wasn’t a lot of money but girls were rich in friends and there was a lot of dancing.

"In the South, they did have the belles of the ball," Helen remembers, adding that all the colleges and fraternities held dances.

Today, Summerville is known for its annual Flowertown Festival, which draws thousands of visitors each spring to enjoy the mass of beautiful flowers that are sheltered by those famous pine trees.



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