In 1934, Dr. Houston Moore envisioned a beautifully landscaped park surrounding the once disheveled Greenfield Lake. With the help of the Wilmington Rotary Club and other community civic organizations, his dream became a reality that took nearly a decade to accomplish. With this success came another vision, an annual festival that would showcase the beauty of the Cape Fear region in all its glory. In 1948 Wilmington hosted the inaugural North Carolina Azalea Festival, suiting over 60,000 patrons. Hugh Morton was the festival’s first president and many other distinguished gentlemen helped bring the event to fruition, including Wallace Murchison, Henry Rehder, and Kenneth Sprunt.
Recognizing the beauty of Greenfield Lake, Orton Plantation, Airlie Gardens, and other immaculate landscapes around the region was at the forefront of the festival’s initial promotion. According to a letter written by Mr. Morton in response to a request for more information on the festival, the gardens were at peak condition and the weather was perfect in the festival’s first year. In addition to the tours of residential gardens and historic homes that serve as a mainstay of the festival, many North Carolina governors and local political figures have participated in the coronation of the festival queens since its inception. A scholarship pageant is held annually to crown the Azalea Festival Princess who heads up the Queen’s Court, made up of a plethora of pageant winners from throughout the state.
In 1980, Doug Echols played an instrumental role in moving the festivities to Wilmington’s riverfront, and when he served as president in 1987 his team established the street fair which would aim to keep crowds downtown after the parade. The Azalea Festival’s most popular events have been the concerts, bringing musical acts from many different genres throughout the years. While Trask Coliseum (on the campus of UNC-Wilmington) served as the go-to venue for these performances, former president Robby Collins and his team established a main-stage event near the river’s edge close to the Cape Fear Community College campus. This open-air venue has allowed the festival to cater to larger crowds and expand concessions available to patrons at these events and has proven to be a great success.
The mission of the North Carolina Azalea Festival is to be nationally recognized as a showcase for our community’s rich array of artwork, gardens, history, and culture through recreational, educational and family-oriented events. The Festival encourages volunteerism and civic participation as it contributes to the region’s economy and promotes the unique qualities of Wilmington’s river-to-the-sea community. This year’s festival begins April 11th and runs through April 15th. For more information on this year’s festival, please visit the organization’s website.