Asheville’s Rhododendron Festival was Depression Era wonder
by Rob Neufeld
Rhododendron Festival has hold on hearts
A recent story about Asheville’s Rhododendron Festival, a five-day fete that had taken place mid-June, 1928-41, tapped reservoirs of memory in our community.
Myra Peyton Lynch’s royal dress, which she’d worn to the ball at Asheville’s 1934 Rhododendron Festival, came to light in the column published here, June 4.
The Lynches had borrowed the train for the dress from their friends, the Westfeldts of New Orleans and Rugby Grange (in Fletcher).
The train,” the column detailed, “was made of heavy silver net with each of the rows pleated with cellophane ruffles and lined with rhinestones.”
Kay Rapier, a Westfeldt family member, responded.
“The story of the train that Myra Lynch wore as Queen of the Rhododendron Ball was exactly as you described, except that there is one detail you didn't know.
“My grandmother was a chain smoker and the cellophane ruffles were pleated pieces of cellophane from packs of cigarettes! She was a lifetime recycler and never let anything go to waste!
“The train had been worn by my aunt (my mother's sister) as Queen of one of our Mardi Gras balls.”
In 1928, another source related, Asheville’s Chamber of Commerce started the Rhododendron Festival and elected a queen by popular ballot.
“A bunch of wags got together,” he said, “and stuffed the boxes with the name of a well-known lady of ill repute.”
She won. She rode the float.
The next year, city leaders changed the rules to have the king and queen chosen by official appointment.
You don’t have to be an Ashevillian to have memories of the festival. In 1939, CBS broadcast the Rhododendron Ball from the Carolina pavilion—an Asheville venue with a 60,000 square foot dance floor.
The previous day, the announcer noted, 150,000 people viewed the parade. Just now, listeners heard him say, young King Raymond and Queen Agnes are being crowned by Asheville Chamber of Commerce president, Harry G. Matthew, “acting as the mythical archbishop of the mythical kingdom of Rhododendron.”
And here come the King and Queen for an interview. “First, His Majesty, the King, Mr. Raymond Lipscomb, young Asheville attorney. My lords, ladies and gentlemen, the King!”
“It is a most colorful celebration,” the King says.
“And now…our beautiful queen, Miss Agnes MacArthur.”
“Greetings to all of the people in the ten southern states who have sent lovely girls as sponsors,” she noted about her court.
Then the dancing begins—in Asheville and in far-away living rooms—to the tunes and rhythms of Ben Bernie and his orchestra.
Three entrants in the 1933 Baby Parade, which took place mid-morning, fourth day of the Rhododendron Festival. The photo is part of a group of Rhododendron Festival photos that Wingate Anders has recently donated to the N.C. Collection, Pack Memorial Library.
Memories of the 5-day pageant
“The South’s greatest play-time in the world’s finest playground,” full-page ads announced in the 1930s about Asheville’s five-day long Rhododendron Festival, a mountain Mardi Gras that attracted performers from ten states and the attention of the world.
When Myra Peyton Lynch was named queen of the festival in 1934, her image appeared on front pages of newspapers from Boston to Texarkana.
“The Pathe news came and took movies of the pageant,” Lynch said. “I received letters from all over the country from people who had seen it.”
The festival, held the second week in June, reserved the third day for a parade of floral floats.
“Every summer, I went to stay with my aunt in Skyland,” said Cricket Williams of Canton. “She had a flower and dairy farm and needed my help. She loved parades and every year we took a Greyhound bus downtown and watched the parade from in front of the S&W Cafeteria. I was named Cricket because I was small, and I remember one man putting me on his shoulders so that I could see.”
Lynch had been volunteering at the Junior League shop in the Grove Arcade when Festival committee members wandered by and offered her the queenship.
“I will have to ask my father,” Lynch had said. Lynch’s father, Dr. James Madison Lynch, was a prominent surgeon. It was the Depression and the Rhododendron Queen would have to undergo many expenses, including fancy dresses.
Lynch’s royal dress was supplied by the Chamber of Congress. For the gown she wore to the Rhododendron Ball on the fourth night, she borrowed a train from her family friends, the Westfeldts of New Orleans and Rugby Grange (in Fletcher). The train was made of heavy silver net with each of the rows pleated with cellophane ruffles and lined with rhinestones.
The fifth night of the festival erupted with Pandemonium. A mutt dog parade. The King and Queen of Mirth, and their Grotesques. Fireworks. Dances!
At the end of each night, Lynch and her royal king, Grove Seely, dissolved their marriage, and Lynch partied with her fiancé, Stewart Rogers (the future architect).
“My husband,” Lynch said, “came out of Duke and Harvard and went to an interview with an architect in New York. ‘My advice to you,’ the architect had said, ‘is, if you have a home, go to it.’ He did. His first job was measuring sewer and water lines in Asheville. It was a good experience.”
“The Depression was hard, but it was the great leveler,” said Lenoir Henry Swicegood, Asheville’s first drum major in 1934, and a participant in the Rhododendron Parade.
“Hardly anybody had a car. Whoever had one never went anywhere without six people in it--and there you were in your best evening dress, sitting in somebody’s lap.”
“It was the best of times.” said Swicegood.
In 1934, Lenoir went to David Millard Junior High School, as Asheville High had closed down temporarily for lack of funds. Educators did double duty; the school engaged volunteers. Joe Dinardo, a local drum and bugle corps leader, instantly transformed the rag tag elements of the high school band into a marching band.
Lenoir played trombone, the legacy of a shortage of violins when she had gone to make her choice in seventh grade. “The trombone players marched in front,” she explained, “and maybe some people saw me and decided to give me a baton.”
Marching at football games and in the Rhododendron Festival and Christmas parades formed a fraction of Lenoir’s busy social life. She and other teens went to Friday dances at the Vanderbilt Hotel, featuring bands such as The Buccaneers; pep club-sponsored dances in the Kenilworth Inn and on the roof of the Grove Arcade; DeMolay dances at the Masonic Temple; and, when flush, productions at the Hendersonville High School gymnasium, showcasing headliners such as Kay Kaiser.
Lenoir was in the thick of it. She earned money working the candy counter at Kress’ Department Store, serving the high school kids who took the streetcar home (25 cents), with a transfer that allowed them to get off at Pritchard Park for a downtown promenade.
Rhododendron Parade, 1939