A cool, gentle breeze blew across the backyard garden of Joan and Guy Pyron on Friday and ushered in the start of the 54th annual Tyler Azalea & Spring Flower Trail during opening ceremonies.
"We are so blessed to have this beautiful sky, and what a wonderful opportunity to invite people to Smith County and Tyler to enjoy the glory," Mary Elizabeth Jackson, Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce board chairwoman, told the crowd gathered in the Pyrons' backyard. She thanked "all of those who open their backyards each year" for the trail. Ms. Jackson also mentioned the favorable economic impact of those visitors on Tyler.
The total economic impact to the city from the 2012 azalea trail visitors to Tyler was $2.6 million, according to information received from the Tyler Convention and Visitors Bureau. This total comes from hotel stays, restaurant visits, bus tours, and visits to associated events, such as the arts and crafts fair, the flower show, and the quilt show, according to information from the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Radio personality and gardening author Neil Sperry cut the ribbon to officially open the trail.
"It's been wonderful to see the azalea trail develop and evolve," he told the crowd as he cut a ribbon adorned with flowers.
Azalea Belle Director Susan Travis, who also serves as the assistant vice president of tourism and servicing for the chamber, spoke about how the Azalea Belles came to be the ambassadors for the Trail.
"In 1960, several chamber secretaries dressed up as greeters ... we really appreciate their time and commitment," Ms. Travis said, recognizing the 32 young women standing in long, hooped skirts in the Pyrons' yard.
Two of the Azalea Belles excited about getting a chance to play a role in continuing a decades-old tradition were Abigail Moreno and Victoria Dickson.
Abigail Moreno was practicing a dance routine for her upcoming Quinceanera last month when she learned she was selected to be one of the Azalea Belles for this year's Tyler Azalea and Spring Flower Trail.
"I was really happy -- I didn't think I would make it," the 14-year-old freshman at Robert E. Lee High School said. She added that her mom, Raquel Molina, was thrilled too when she was selected.
Miss Moreno, who was present at the ribbon cutting on Friday, said she applied because she "wanted to try something new."
Requirements to be selected as an Azalea Belle include good grades and active involvement in school activities, she said. Miss Moreno is a part of the Southern Belles dance team at Lee and is in the art program, in addition to taking electric guitar lessons.
As an Azalea Belle, she will work weekend days, taking pictures with Azalea Trail visitors, she said.
Victoria Dickson, 15, attends Kings Academy Christian School in Tyler, and said the idea of being an Azalea Belle "sounded very appealing" because she enjoys meeting and serving people. She is on the dance team, the Royal Ladies, at her school, and teaches ballet to young children at the dance studio owned by her parents, Dave and Marlene Dickson.
The azalea trail features 10 miles of azaleas, dogwoods, spring flowers and the ambassadors of the Trail, the Azalea Belles. The Belles, local high school freshmen and sophomores will be there to greet guests and pose for pictures dressed in antebellum style costumes.
The trail festivities, which are slated to last through April 7, include a Flower Market sale at the Goodman-LeGrand Museum on North Broadway Avenue today, and an arts and crafts fair at Bergfeld Park on March 23 and 24, along with the Tyler Azalea 10K and 2-Mile fun runs on March 23.
At Camp Ford, a living history event March 23 and 24 will feature infantry drills, weapons demonstrations and skirmishes along with other activities in conjunction with trail festivities.
Azaleas were introduced to Tyler in 1929 by Maurice Shamburger, one of the city's early nurserymen, according to a news release from the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Pleased with results of a test garden of azaleas, Shamburger shipped the colorful plants to Tyler by the boxcar from Georgia. By 1960, the blooming azaleas were attracting much attention, and that year the Chamber of Commerce established a marked trail. The first trail featured 60 homes on a five-mile route, according to the release.
The trail was an instant success. Within two years, it had expanded to 75 homes and attracted 15,000 annual visitors. By 1964, 25,000 people a year were coming to see the azaleas. In 1986, it expanded to two miles and then expanded again in 2009. The trail now stretches 10 miles and attracts more than 100,000 visitors to Tyler every year. Many of the yards along the trail still feature the original plants that arrived by boxcar in the 1940s and 1950s.
For a complete list of activities during a specific weekend, go to www.visittyler.com. Complimentary visitor packets are available by calling 800-235-5712 or at www.visittyler.com.
Visitors may obtain trail information at the Chamber of Commerce, 315 N. Broadway Ave. 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Sunday through April 7.
Azalea Belles attend the opening ceremony for the 54th Annual Azalea & Spring Flower Trail in Tyler Friday. Azalea Belles are the trail’s official ambassadors. (Sarah A. Miller/Staff)