Written By: Heather Lee Gordy | Photographed By: Donna Thompson
Anyone from Wilmington, NC knows the impact and excitement the Azalea Festival brings each year, and this year Wilmington celebrates their 70th North Carolina Azalea Festival. What started as a small-town event has grown to attract more than 300,000 people and has become a nationally recognized event representing all of the best of Wilmington. If you’ve been involved or seen the Azalea Festival, then you’re familiar with the Annual Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour (CFGC Azalea Garden Tour) and their famous Azalea Belles.
It was in 1969 that Mrs. Harley Vance, then president of the Cape Fear Garden Club, introduced the tradition of the Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Belles participating in the CFGC Azalea Garden Tour. It began with seven young ladies who wore hoop-skirted antebellum dresses, and has since grown to over 120 young ladies serving as ambassadors for the City of Wilmington during the Azalea Festival each year. The Azalea Belles act as hostesses in the gardens featured on the CFGC Azalea Garden Tour, and also participate in several activities during the Azalea Festival. The most important aspect of this tradition though, is what being an Azalea Belle means to these young women.
Michelle Peak Savard was a 2006 Azalea Belle. Both her sisters were Azalea Belles, her sister Christina in 1993, and her sister Heather in 1998, and she still remembers seeing them in their antebellum dresses. “I remember clearly being very young and going to see them in the gardens in their big beautiful dress,” Michelle said, “and I hoped to one day be a Belle myself…Trying on the dresses, picking out the color, getting sized and fitted, was almost like picking out a wedding dress. I remember vividly being with Alma Fennell and getting so excited when she handed me that green dress.”
It’s common for many Azalea Belles to be seen as role models in the community, and to have been influenced themselves by a Belle at a young age. Many of the Belles would say they were influenced from seeing their sibling as a Belle, or from a touching encounter they had with a Belle when they were young.
Kelly Esposito, a 2005 Azalea Belle, said too that it was an opportunity she always hoped for after taking a photograph with an Azalea Belle when she was younger. “I was honored,” Kelly said. “It was fun to be a representative of such a beautiful town…There’s something for everyone and I absolutely love it.”
For some Belles, it’s the pure joy they gain from the whole experience. The excitement of picking out their own dress, the confidence they feel while trying it on, the encouragement and support they gain from each other, and then being able to share this experience with their home town. For others, a deeper appreciation and value doesn’t come till later.
“I was an Azalea Belle in 1992,” said Harper Arrena Piver, who was born and raised in Wilmington, NC. “To me, to be an Azalea Belle is to be part of a unique local tradition…I think this tradition is important, particularly in our era of smartphone addiction. The gardens foster a space for quiet and contemplation from which everyone can benefit. I hope that taking time to walk through the gardens, helps foster a desire to be better stewards of the environment, starting with creating beauty in one’s own space.”
Harper is now married with two children living in Phoenix, AZ working as an artist creating choreography and dance films. She also teaches dance and film in higher education, both at Arizona State University and in the Maricopa Community Colleges. Kelly is currently a third year resident in Orthopaedic Surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. Although Harper and Kelly have both moved out of state now, they still miss and look forward to the Azalea Festival every year.
Michelle and her husband, John, moved back to Wilmington after college and opened Wilmington Homebrew Supply in 2012 and Wilmington Brewing Company two years after. “We are thankful for the people here past, present, and new, that continue to cheer us on at the brewery as we continue to grow our business,” said Michelle. Michelle and her husband, John, plan to stay in Wilmington and grow their business as local as possible.
The North Carolina Azalea Festival is an event that pulls the community closer every year, and is something locals and visitors continue to look forward to. Being an Azalea Belle is an opportunity that young women will remember throughout their life. These past Belles surely haven’t forgotten their experience, and admire the opportunity they had to represent their hometown.