Hearing stories of Washington’s tulip festival

Published 6:58 pm Monday, March 14, 2022

Looking at the tulips growing in my back yard brought back some wonderful memories of Springtime as I grew up in Washington.  While I was not born when Washington celebrated the annual Tulip Festival, 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 which she said was a Dutch settlement in Pantego.  I later came to learn that Terra Ceia meant ‘Heavenly Land’ in Dutch and it was indeed settled in the early 1900’s by Dutch families who migrated to Beaufort and Hyde Counties.

From what I heard her talk about, the Tulip Festival in Washington was a major and beautiful event.   My grandmother was an avid gardener. She grew all kinds of vegetables and fruit trees in our very large back yard and her flower garden was her pride and joy.  But she said the flowers that were a part of the Tulip Festival that decorated the downtown and even some boats on the waterfront made her flowers pale in comparison.

I can see why the festival was a wonderful event. According to Isabel Carter Worthy, a contributor to the book ‘Washington on The Pamlico’, the Tulip Festival was the idea of Mrs. Olive Rumley for a folk festival in the spring to salute both 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, when it was suspended by WW II.  It was a community wide project that had the cooperation of Beaufort County and Washington City Schools, Book Clubs, The Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary and Lions Clubs, The American Legion Auxiliaries and many other groups.

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, Dutchmen sang folk songs in native costumes, Coast Guard cutters were open to the public and planes flew overhead.  In 1940, according to Washington on The Pamlico, an estimated 30,00 people were in attendance.  Traffic was so heavy coming from Greenville to Washington; it took two hours to travel to the festival.

Many years after the festival ended, the Dutch heritage continued to be shared.  I remember learning about it at primary school. We would make crepe paper tulips to decorate the classroom and colored cutouts of tulips, windmills, Dutch children and a flag of The Netherlands.

One of my teachers, Mrs. Parham showed us how to walk in a pair of wooden shoes she brought to class and showed us how 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 in my research of Washington’s history, I was delighted to learn we had two. One at Jack’s Creek (briefly named Windmill Creek) and one at Respess and the waterfront where Samuel R. Fowle had one built behind his General Merchandise store to grind salt, hominy and grain.

The festival was revived briefly in the late 1980’s.  A Washington Daily News story from March 19, 2010 about the event estimated there were 4,000 people in Washington to attend the first day. That attendance was said to top the renowned Wilmington NC’s Azalea Festival that year.  It would be wonderful to have the Tulip Festival revived again.