Treasures and more at the annual Sumter Iris Festival in South Carolina

Honk! Honk! Hooonk!!! Traffic crawled at a glacial pace. It was agonizing—to watch.

My husband, Steve, and I were in the opposite lane cruising at 70 mph. It was Memorial Day weekend. In two hours, those bumper-to-bumper beach seekers would be lucky to find a parking spot within walking distance of the ocean. In two hours, Steve and I would be 100 miles inland. Our destination? A festival in Sumter that was as old as we were. And we aren’t spring chickens.

Something old, something new

Seventy-seven years ago, our parents welcomed us into this world. And 77 years ago, Sumter hosted its first Iris Festival. Fast-forward to present day. Steve and I are proud grandparents, and the Iris Festival is South Carolina’s oldest continuously running festival. It’s also one of the most famous in the Southeast and open to the public without charge, so we felt a bit silly that we’d never attended despite retiring in South Carolina five years ago. We always had our grandkids visit us at the beach on holiday weekends. But this year, they were at their other grandparents’, and we jumped at the chance to trade the beach crowds for some beautiful culture.

The Iris Festival is more than just flowers—live music, Iris Festival royalty, and even a classic car show make up the three-day celebration. But what Steve was most excited about was the art. After retiring, my husband had adopted art as his new hobby. “What I lack in education, I make up for in enthusiasm,” Steve had said when he first started collecting paintings. He lacked a classically trained eye, but his eclectic tastes suited our funky beach house. Plus, who was I to judge? My subpar gardening skills—“a green thumb-in-progress,” I’d joke—were what kept me busy after retiring. An event celebrating both plants and art was a perfect fit for us.

Meeting the Chicken Man

We arrived at the Iris Festival, heading straight to the Bland Garden, where Steve immediately started talking about food.

“It’s 10 a.m.! I can’t do lunch yet.”

Steve laughed and informed me that the Chicken Man he wanted to find wasn’t one of the food vendors cranking out delicious smells, which held their own against the fragrant greenery of Swan Lake Iris Gardens.

Surprisingly, the next thing tickling my nose was the smell of fresh paint—the Chicken Man’s preferred medium. His real name is Ernest Lee. But he’s known across the state as the Chicken Man because of his penchant toward painting the fowl. There seemed to be little method to his madness. “I paint from the heart,” he said, watching us watch him use a roller to turn a piece of plywood into a purple backdrop. His subject? A chicken.

But Ernest didn’t just paint his signature, stretched-out, chicken portraits. Among the subjects in his repertoire were fish, palmetto trees, park scenes, and even pop culture icons such as the late Michael Jackson. He was the highly advertised featured guest of the 2017 Iris Festival, but in his baggy tie-dye Chicken Man T-shirt hanging over his paint-splattered pants, he looked more like a street artist. As it turns out, he had been a street artist—running a gallery out of his van and trailer on a street corner for years.

Steve chatted with Ernest while I got to speak with his son, Scottie Lee—also an artist. We ended up walking away with paintings from both generations. We weren’t spring chickens, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t appreciate a good chicken when we saw one. We called them “His” and “Hers.”

From a swamp to Eden

A local Sumter musician strummed his guitar on the gazebo’s stage, gifting us with an acoustic soundtrack for our walk along the Cypress Boardwalk. According to our brochure, Swan Lake Iris Gardens was once a swamp. This was the original site, purchased in the late 1920s by a prominent Sumter businessman named Hamilton Bland.

Among other things, Bland’s legacy is a montage of delicate royal purple and white flowers that bloom every May—making it one of the most celebrated botanical gardens in the country. Just like Steve couldn’t leave the Chicken Man’s booth without a keepsake, I couldn’t leave Bland Garden without its crown jewel. The native plants were beautiful, but I needed a Japanese Iris.

Fortunately, Sumter’s master gardeners were hosting the festival’s popular plant sale—the only weekend these Japanese Iris flowers are sold at Swan Lake. This is the only time of year they bloom, so timing is right for getting to see what you buy. I was able to pick up two plants, one a deep rosy violet hue, which I promptly named “Mine” and the other, a white and light purple (nearly blue) one, which I named “Also Mine.” Steve can hardly remember to feed our cat. He’d never remember to water his iris.

So much more to explore

Honk! Honk! Hooonk!!! The next morning’s honking didn’t come from frustrated drivers. Their source was the elegant swans—eight different varieties, including the rare black-necked and all-black swans—floating and feeding in front of us. We were guests in their home: Heath Garden. Opposite Bland Garden, Heath was also named for a Sumter local. Today, however, the garden was full of non-locals who had come for Saturday’s festivities.

There were also more kids than I could count. They weren’t in Heath Garden for its braille garden or even the chocolate garden, aptly named for its rich floral notes reminiscent of cocoa. They were there for the festival’s carnival rides and the park’s playground, which held its own against the mechanical bells and whistles of the more modern, rented rides. Tiny faces took turns behind the steering wheel of the playground’s most popular feature: a bright red fire truck painstakingly restored for the purpose of putting out imaginary fires. “Carter could play up there for hours,” I said. Steve nodded, our five-year-old grandson practically came out of the womb telling anyone who would listen he was going to be a firefighter when he grew up.

“And Natalie could spend hours with her feet never touching the ground,” Steve observed, eyeing the swings, climbing equipment, and monkey bars. Carter’s nine-year-old sister was a budding gymnast, although the verdict was still out on whether she’d grow up to be an acrobat or an astronaut.

Remembering to make more memories

Maybe next year, when we’d have the grandkids for Memorial Day, we’d bring them to the 78th Annual Iris Festival. We didn’t even need to mark it on the calendar. Every day we’d see the chickens smiling back at us in our living room, and the purple flowers silently singing for admiration from the garden.

Get another perspective on the Sumter Iris Festival.

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