Sumter’s Swan Lake-Iris Gardens has grown into what’s known as a showplace of flowers and the home of all eight species of swan. It’s also home to the longest continuously running festival in the Southeast with the Iris Festival.
Since 1940, visitors from across the U.S. and many other countries have traveled to the Gamecock City for the festival to see – and buy – the thousands of Japanese irises growing along the banks of the lake and to participate in the wide variety of festival events.
This year’s festival will be held in the gardens during Memorial Day weekend – Friday, May 24, through Sunday, May 26 – for the 79th year, according to Lynn Kennedy, chairwoman of the Iris Festival Committee and events planner for the City of Sumter.
The festival begins on the evening of Thursday, May 23, from 6 to 9 p.m., Kennedy said, with the official opening ceremony and the crowning of King and Queen Iris. Then it’s on to the Garden Street side of the lake for the popular Taste at the Gardens, a tasting of food from local chefs, caterers and restaurants accompanied by music from local band Elijah Bradford and The Valentinos.
Kennedy said the band performed earlier this year at The Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce Retreat in Hilton Head and is very entertaining.
Friday through Sunday, the festival will be packed with activities and sights to suit every age range, from children to seniors, she said.
While most events will interest all festival goers, there is an amusement area and Children’s Art in the Park for younger visitors. The kids’ area will also feature a mechanical ride, a rock wall and bungee jumps this year.
Additionally, there will be a flower show in the Alice Boyle Garden Center and gardening ideas and materials for plant lovers in the Bland Gardens – on the gazebo side of the gardens. Gardeners will again be able to purchase a wide variety of plants.
Kennedy said each year the festival tries to highlight a local artist. This year, it will be Michael Duffy of Sumter. Duffy specializes in sculptures, and his work will be featured each day in the Bland Gardens.
Saturday brings the Shrine Day Parade with many units, including bands, clowns and a float carrying the festival’s kings and queens.
Prisma Health Tuomey Community Health Initiatives will also provide free screenings for adults.
An extensive food court and the Marketplace – both in the Heath Gardens on the south side – will be open all three days, offering a diverse selection of food, arts and crafts. According to Kennedy, each year the festival features about 125 or more vendors.
Several new vendors have applied to the festival this year, and Kennedy said she expects there will be new artwork for attendees to take in.
Festival-goers can also enjoy free pontoon boat rides – the Iris Festival is the only time they’re available – to get a swan’s-eye view of the lake and gardens.
Again this year, the Iris Festival will have two car shows – one Saturday and another on Sunday.
Throughout the festival, a variety of entertainment will be presented on several stages.
Kennedy said if there is good weather, the festival can average anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 attendees.
Admission is free. There is a $5 donation for admission to the Taste at the Gardens for people 13 and older and a charge by individual vendors for food tastings and art purchases. Kennedy said she encourages anyone and everyone to come out for a great show.
“We hope everybody comes out,” Kennedy said, “and we’re praying for good weather and a lot of blooms.”
She said she also wanted to thank the festival’s sponsors for their support.
“Without our sponsors, we wouldn’t be able to offer all these things for free,” Kennedy said. “It’s very rare to go to a festival that the kids’ area is free. You normally pay. Because of the response from the community and the sponsorships, we are able to offer free entertainment to all those who attend.”