Mid-town, Azalea Park is a must see for everyone visiting Summerville. In the springtime it’s beautiful with blooming azalea bushes. Flowers are starting to bloom and grass has taken on a new coat of green. The weather is outstanding. Temperatures are usually not to cool, and it hasn’t turned summertime yet with the sweltering heat. It’s a great time to visit Azalea Park, walking the paths alone or with those you love.
Back in the 1920s, people were thinking about a downtown park. In fact the “Civic League”, known today as the “Flower town Garden Club,” raised the money to purchased 16 acres of land lying between Central Avenue and Magnolia Street. The “Civic League” decided to give the property to the village of Summerville.
In 1929 William H. Richardson was voted in as mayor of Summerville. Between 1891 in 1932 he had served 24 years as our mayor. Mayor Richardson died in January of 1932. The next mayor elected was Grange S. Cuthbert.
In 1929 the Great Depression hit America. The stock market took a dive. Very few people had any money. Banks closed. Businesses shut down and did not reopen. People were trying to find jobs, but there weren’t any. Times were hard. That’s the way it was when Cuthbert took office. The national government realized the problem America was in. The national government had started a program for jobs, the “Works Progress Administration”, or “WPA”.
Mayor Cuthbert had been born at Magnolia Plantation, growing up in Summerville. It was here he gained his great love for flowers. He also saw how Plantation Gardens pulled in tourist dollars. Mayor Grange Cuthbert came up with the plan of taking some of the land given by the “Civic League” and turning it into a midtown paradise. The city thought the idea was great. So Cuthbert applied for a “WPA” grant and received one. Mayor Cuthbert hired people to get the land ready. They had to clear out the dead trees, vines, and brush. They cleared out the drainage ditches. These wonderful people worked for $.10 an hour.
If they were going to make this park a paradise they needed flowers, lots of flowers. Azaleas were not common in South Carolina at that time. There were some Azalea plants but they were not common like we see them today. George Segelken owned “Summerville Floral Nursery.” George Segelken was dating Evelyn, the girl who would become his wife. George talked with her about the park and supplying the flowers. He was very excited about the project and the flowers. George was a pioneer in the propagation of Azalea’s. All 33,000 flowers came from “Summerville Floral Nursery.” His efforts helped popularize azaleas through out South Carolina.
When the mid-town park was finished in 1935 it was called “Azalea Park.” That spring thousands of tourists drove to Summerville to view the flowers. Virginia Bailey’s slogan, “Flower Town in the Pines” proved to be true. For several years the annual spring migration continued growing each year. Then as azaleas became more popular throughout the state, fewer and fewer tourists came.
Camellias became the craze. Locally they organized the “Summerville Camellia Society” which was led by Cannon Prettyman. The “Camellia Society” recorded peak attendance in the 1950s and 1960s. Mr. Prettyman and Legare Walker wrote a paper on the tea farm tracing the Camellias there.
Meanwhile “Azalea Park” was forgotten and it went down hill. In the early 1960s the park was cleaned up again. Broken trees, vines, and brush were removed. Bridges were repaired and drainage ditches were cleaned. But then ten years later the park was back in the same terrible shape.
In Barbara Lynch Hill’s book, “Summerville South Carolina 1847-1997 Our History,” Barbara writes, “This time the park was rescued by Beth McIntosh, town council member and local historian. In 1975, in conjunction with a proposal from the Summerville Preservation Society, she persuaded council to take on the park restoration as a bicentennial project. The Coastal Plains Regional Commission awarded the town $50,000 and the town added nearly $18,000 to the fund. Restoration took about four years and included eight acres, with park land on both sides of Main Street.”
“The project had four phases, explained by Mike Hinson, town horticulturist and Parks & Playgrounds superintendent, and Frank Cuthbert. Mr. Cuthbert was a retired research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a Parks & Playgrounds Commissioner for over 20 years. (An interesting sidelight here is that Mr. Cuthbert’s father, also Frank, headed the local WPA work effort that created the park his son worked on so diligently six decades later.)”
“Mr. Cuthbert said originally a plan commissioned by a landscape designer was too ambitious both as to money and size. They used the design though, as a guide for further work. Phase I began in 1977, funded by CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) money, and started where Mr. Segelken had started, on the east side of the park. There was a renewed clearing of the area and preservation of the trees and plants there that were worth keeping.”
“By 1980, Wildwood Nursery, which Mr. Cuthbert called one of the best landscape designers in the area, installed two gazebos, the pond, bridge, and walkways. That same year Phase II began on the west side of Azalea Park and included the amphitheater and butterfly ponds. Grant money provided funds again, but all the work was done in-house.”
“In 1983, Phase III began by attacking another “jungle,” that area on the west side of the park next to the Child Care Center of Summerville. “It was so thick with vines that ran the full length of the trees,” Mr. Hinson said, “that there was a triple canopy and it was almost impossible to get into.” PRT (Parks, Recreation and Tourism) grant money was used here and when it was finished, the area became Mr. Cuthbert’s favorite. It was called the “Senses Garden,” on the original design, fitting because of all the fragrant tea olive trees discovered in the area. Visual appeal came also via the myriad of camellias found, but trees were the main treasure, including palmettos, crape myrtles, American chestnuts and a huge pine, thought to be the second oldest in South Carolina.”
“That pine, and about 300 other nearby tress came crashing down in September 1989 when Hurricane Hugo tried to demolish the park. Hugo also caused havoc with the Phase IV restoration begun earlier that year. That phase, the area on the east side of the park adjacent to the Hamilton Motel, was on extremely low land, crisscrossed with ditches and almost impossible to maintain.”
“Mr. Cuthbert joked that he and Mike Hinson had carefully picked out which trees to save and which to fell when Hugo came to town and saved a lot of tree-cutting money. Unfortunately the huge storm leveled many more trees without discrimination. In the aftermath of the hurricane, people sent in money to help restore Azalea Park, and all that work was also done in-house. Phase IVs core is a circular brick courtyard approached from the west through an avenue of crape myrtles. The latest addition is a raised brick garden flanked by colonial lights and built-in benches. Today, Azalea Park features butterfly ponds, an amphitheater, sturdy ornamental bridges crossing the canals, a water garden and gazebos. The latter are the site of many local weddings, especially in the spring. There are also mini-gardens within the park featuring annual flowers.”
“The Cuthbert Community Center, built in 1975, stands in the center of the park – where its namesake mayor liked to be – right in the middle of the floral display. Tourists have returned to Summerville to enjoy Azalea Park and residential gardens for years.”
In more recent years, Sculpture in the South Annual Show and Sale takes place in May. Sculpture in the South have given Azalea Park nine sculptures from the first one “Hop to It” by Kim Shaklee in 1999. One of the most unique sculptures is “Follow the Leader” by W. Stanley Proctor given in 2003. Be sure to check out the other seven sculptures in the park.
Summerville is very proud of Azalea Park. When you go by and visit it you’ll see why.
Written by: Mark Woodard
- Hill, Barbara Lynch. Summerville, SC 1847-1997 Our History. Wentworth Printing, West Columbia, SC (1998)
- McIntosh, Beth. Beth’s Pineland Village. The R.L. Bryan Company, Columbia, SC (1988)