The Rhododendron Festival – Asheville History

With the Bele Chere festival celebrating its 35th and possibly final year, I decided to write about its predecessor, the Rhododendron Festival.

 Parade Float Showing anti-Prohibition sentiment Parade Float Showing anti-Prohibition sentiment

The Rhododendron Festival was started in June of 1928 by the Chamber of Commerce to bring more tourism to Asheville and lasted until 1942 when the US went to war.  At its height it was a week long event featuring a different parade every day, beauty pageants, upscale balls and a Saturday evening affair that brought the elite of Asheville and their guests together to dance and dine in sophisticated style.

It was also designed to showcase the rich traditions of Southern Appalachia and events featuring bluegrass music, clogging and Appalachian buck dancing drew thousands of visitors.  Bascom Lamar Lunsford of Mars Hill was the principal organizer of the Appalachian music events and successfully spun off the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival.

 Lunsford, at right, with others clogging Lunsford, at right, with others clogging

The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival was the first and has become the longest running festival of its kind, promoting traditional southern music and dance.  Yet another spinoff from this festival is Shinding on the Green, which started out as impromptu jam sessions of Mountain Dance and Folk Festival participants and has become a popular summertime event in downtown Asheville.

Each year the Rhododendron Festival crowned a King and Queen of Rhododendron, a mythical fairyland built each year in the baseball diamond at McCormick Field.  This was the culmination of several small pageants held throughout the week.  Humans weren’t the only pageant participants, though.  Dogs and livestock were also paraded around and judged during the festivities.

As we close the chapter on the city’s management and promotion of Bele Chere we can look forward to the next fun summertime incarnation.  And if you think the traffic is bad and it’s hard to get around for three days at the end of each July, picture living like that for a whole week as they did each year the Rhododendron Festival was held.

Fore more Asheville History, join BREW-ed on a Brewery and History Walking Tour.

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