Sumter Prepares for Iris Festival. Officials: Flood Damage Hard to Notice

May 17, 2016

Thousands of people will visit Swan Lake Iris Gardens in Sumter for the 76th Annual Iris Festival. Seven months ago, Sumter’s mayor Joseph McElveen, Jr. wasn’t sure if damages from October’s flood would be fixed in time for the event. McElveen said the collaborative effort of park staff and city leaders helped accomplished what seemed to be a massive reconstruction project.

"The Iris Festival has been going on for a lot of years and its always been a big deal," McElveen said. When I was a boy, it was huge. Both sides of main street were filled for blocks with people, coming to see if we had cowboy stars that we listened to on the radio" he added.

During a recent tour of the park, Sumter’s Communications & Tourism Director Shelley Kiles said one the park’s most celebrated features also played a role in their road to recovery.

“I like to tell people that in Sumter we work harder, we spend smarter and we get more for the buck.”

Mayor Joseph T. McElveen, Jr. is a life-long resident of Sumter, South Carolina. He credits Swan Lake Iris Gardens staff and city leaders with working harder and smarter to get park fully reopened to the public two months after the flood.

“You gotta understand that Swan Lake Iris Gardens is a real point of pride with people in Sumter. You can come out here on a day like today and you’ll see citizens from all over the city and country.”

The park partially reopened October 15. At that time, visitors could enter the Bland Gardens (north side of West Liberty Street), including the gazebo, trails, and boardwalk areas. The Heath Gardens (south of West Liberty) were reopened with limited access. Almost two months later, the park fully reopened to the public on December 19.

“It’s quite a compliment to the park staff and the leadership in the city and I think especially the administrative staff and city manager. You have to look hard to see where the things are that still need to be done.”

Spots of erosion can be noticed at the gardens. A concrete anchoring of a memorial bench reveals how much dirt was washed away during the flood.
Credit Vincent Kolb-Lugo / SC Public Radio

There are a few places at the park where erosion is still visible. The park has 37 memorial benches that were dedicated by family members of loved ones who have passed. A few of the benches were washed away from designated spots. Others are still in place, but their concrete anchoring is now visible. Shelly Kiles is Communications & Tourism Director for the City of Sumter. She said park staff were working to re-establish the locations of the benches and have also started upgrading the parks new sound system.

"The new system will be a digital system with sectional announcements possible on 360 degree speakers.”

Kiles said this should cut down on background noise and remove the reverb or ambient noise that the older system experienced.

Swan Lake Iris Gardens is also home to some of the nation's most intensive plantings of Japanese iris. Some of these flowers were up-rooted during the flood.

“We saw all these bulbs that were uprooted, laying alongside the fence that had been knocked over.”

Uprooted bulbs at Swan Lake Iris Gardens.
Credit Swan Lake Iris Gardens / Swan Lake Iris Gardens

Ruth Ann Bigger is Vice President and upcoming president of Friends of Swan Lake, a local support organization dedicated to the continued beautification and improvement of the gardens.  Bigger is a master gardener and often conducts tours at the park. She said all the uprooted bulbs were replanted.

The flowers from these bulbs will be on display during the Iris Festival. The event is the oldest festival in South Carolina. Other floral attractions to enjoy include colorful camellias, azaleas, day lilies, and Japanese magnolias. A Braille Trail enables the sight-impaired to enjoy the scents and sensations of the gardens.

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Swan Lake Iris Gardens, one of South Carolina’s most popular tourist attractions with an average of 500,000 visitors annually.

Friends of Swan Lake was formed in 2001 to continue beautification and improvement of the gardens.