SUMMERVILLE — The town is hitting a milestone as the YMCA gears up for the Flowertown Festival's 50th anniversary.
Originally hosted by the Young Women’s Christian Organization and then known as the Azalea Festival, the arts and crafts event was a fundraiser to help give children swimming lessons.
There was a race along Main Street, a parade and a beauty pageant, along with arts and crafts vendors, said Judy Cranford, one of the YWCO volunteers who helped put together the first festival.
Since then, the annual spring event has expanded, with more than 300 arts and crafts vendors, as well as over 100 businesses and food vendors. It's one of the largest arts and crafts festivals in the Southeast.
It's also the YMCA's largest fundraiser. The organization uses the funds to offer scholarships to children and families who may not be able to participate in its programs or join the gym.
Over 200,000 people attend the festival over the course of three days, according to YMCA Marketing Director Erika Stubbs. They gather the information by conducting surveys in coordination with the College of Charleston.
Cranford said she’s not surprised the festival has lasted this long, adding that she and the other nine or so volunteers who put together the first festival believed it would continue for years.
“I think we all knew we were going to do this, and we were going to hold onto it as long as we could,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t go on. I think we all felt that way.”
Nicknamed "Flower Town in the Pines," Summerville formed as a town in 1847 so residents could protect its trees from excessive woodcutting. The railroad was chopping many down as it tried to extend the rails and relocate commercial centers near the tracks.
The town passed a law that year prohibiting the cutting of certain-sized trees without permission. The law still stands today, as do many of the trees downtown where festivalgoers wander from booths to food trucks along Main Street and through Azalea Park.
The town, which had only 6,000 residents when the festival began in the 1970s, has swelled to more than 50,000 people. And the festival has grown with it.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary, Stubbs said the festival will bring some things back that have been done in the past, but not recently.
“We’re including performance acts from youth in our community,” Stubbs said. “Dance clubs, any high school theater or music groups, we’re inviting them all to come join our stage. We also used to have commemorative items such as pins, hats and posters. We’re bringing all of those items back.”
Diane Frankenberger, who has lived in Summerville since 1967, has witnessed the festival’s slow yet steady growth over the years. She said it’s always had an incredible reputation for being both good and safe.
As a Summerville resident who has grown up with the Flowertown Festival, Stubbs said her favorite part of the event is seeing the attendees enjoy it. She added that people view the festival as a safe place to have fun, no matter their age or interests.
“It’s going to sound really cliché, but it is awesome to see an event that a baby or someone in their 90s can enjoy. How rare is that — to have something for everybody?” Stubbs said. “I think that we don’t see enough of that anymore.”
While the festival takes place the first weekend in April, the YMCA has been planning since October, when vendor applications open. Volunteers review the applications in January and start to send out acceptance and denial letters.
Lakaisha Ferguson, the owner of Baps and Babe World Famous Gumbo in Moncks Corner, said this will be her second year as a festival vendor. She had heard about it from friends and social media, adding that she loves everything about the festival.
“The people are great, the atmosphere is beautiful … it’s a breath of fresh air for people just to be out and about,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson, whose seafood gumbo has African, Caribbean and Lowcountry influences, said she’s honored to be included in the festival's 50th anniversary and is ready to offer free samples to curious attendees.
While there are primarily local vendors at the event, several from other states — Florida, Tennessee and Georgia, to name a few — will travel to attend.
“They will come because the crowds are here,” Stubbs said. “This is one of the biggest festivals they’ll do all year.”
Astro Vinyl Art is one of those out-of-state vendors. Hailing from Pottstown, Pa., father and son Dave and Alec Friel have been carving intricate music-related designs on vinyl records since 2016. While they travel to music and art festivals, this will be their first year as a vendor at the Flowertown Festival.
Dave Friel said he and his son look forward to introducing their unique artwork to a new geographic area.
“We’re super excited to be a part of this long-running event, especially on the 50th anniversary,” he said.
Frankenberger, who owns People, Places and Quilts in downtown Summerville, added that most of the area businesses enjoy the three-day event, as well, because people who come for the festival usually stop by the stores.
“Summerville has quite a reputation now as a place to come to for our wonderful restaurants, all our stores are locally owned, everybody is friendly,” Frankenberger said. “We all encourage one another because when one succeeds, we all succeed.”
The festival will run from March 31-April 2, the same weekend as the Cooper Bridge River Run and the beginning of the Credit One Charleston Open tennis tournament on Daniel Island. Hours are 9-6 p.m. on March 31 and April 1, and 9-4 p.m. on April 2.