Remembering Washington’s Tulip Festival

Published 11:36 am Tuesday, March 23, 2021

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Looking at the tulips growing in my backyard brought back some wonderful memories of spring while growing up in Washington. I wasn’t born when Washington celebrated the annual Tulip Festival, but I loved hearing stories about it.

My grandmother had a front yard with all kinds of spring flowers, but her favorite was yellow tulips.  She talked about how tulips grew in abundance at a place called Terra Ceia, a Dutch settlement in Pantego.  I later learned that Terra Ceia is Dutch for ‘Heavenly Land’ and it was settled in the early 1900’s by Dutch families who migrated to Beaufort and Hyde County.

Grandma said the Tulip Festival in Washington was a major and beautiful event. She grew all kinds of vegetables and fruit trees in our very large backyard and her flower garden was her pride and joy.  But she said the flowers in the Tulip Festival that adorned the downtown and even some boats on the waterfront made hers pale in comparison.

According to Isabel Carter Worthy, a contributor to the book ‘Washington on the Pamlico’, the Tulip Festival was Mrs. Olive Rumley’s idea. She wanted a spring event to salute the Dutch colonists of Terra Ceia and the beautiful flowers they grew.  The first festival was held April 6-7,1937 and continued until 1941, suspended by World War II. Beaufort County, Washington City Schools, Book Clubs, The Chamber of Commerce, The Rotary and Lions Clubs, The American Legion Auxiliaries and many other groups contributed to its success.

The festival was held the first week in April as it was the peak blooming season for the tulips.

There were parades with elaborately decorated floats, Dutchman sang folk songs dressed in native costumes, Coast Guard Cutters were open to the public and planes flew overhead.  An estimated 30,000 people attended the 1940 event according to Washington on the Pamlico and it took two hours to travel from Greenville for it because traffic was so heavy.

After the Festival ended, the Dutch heritage continued. I remember learning about it in Primary school.  We would make crepe paper tulips to decorate the classroom. We colored cutouts of tulips, windmills, Dutch children and the flag of The Netherlands. Mrs. Parham showed us how to walk in wooden shoes she brought to class and taught us to use cardboard to simulate making them. She showed us a National Geographic Magazine about Dutch families in Holland and we read about Holland in our Weekly Reader.  My favorite thing was learning about windmills.

I still love windmills and was delighted to learn Washington had two. One was at Jack’s Creek (briefly named Windmill Creek) and the other was on Respess St. near the waterfront where Samuel R. Fowle used it to grind salt, hominy and grain behind his general store.

The festival was revived briefly in the late 1980’s.  A Washington Daily News story from years later estimated first-day attendance topped 4,000, which outdrew the renowned Azalea Festival in Wilmington that year.  It would be wonderful to revive the Tulip Festival again.


Leesa Jones is a Washington native and is the co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.