Lolita Buchanan of Spruce Pine is crowned the 1958 North Carolina Rhododendron Queen by John Jones of the Asheville Citizen Times.

The beautiful Rhododendron flower is celebrated worldwide. These celebrations include festivals in Port Logan, England; Edinburgh, Scotland; Muroji, Japan; Taranaki, a bit south of New Plymouth, New Zealand: Florence, OR; Me, CA; Plymouth, MA; and tad closer to home, Hiawassee, GA. And there may be more! In 1928, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce began The Rhododendron Festival there; it lasted until 1942. Some efforts to resurrect it were made in the late 1950’s.  The well-known and huge Belle Chere Festival began in 1979 and lasted until 2013 when, deeply in debt, it was cancelled. The current North Carolina Rhododendron Festival most likely had its beginnings around 1945 when it appeared that Tennessee was about “to steal” the economic advantages of automobile access to Roan Mountain by building a paved highway up to Carver’s Gap. In a yet to be determined process in 1947, the Citizen’s Club of Roan Mountain, TN, and a citizen’s group from Bakersville, NC, likely the original membership of the Lion’s Club formed later, initiated the first Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival. With the urging of Edna Potter, who had contacts on both sides of the mountain, a pageant was added to the general get-together envisioned by the two groups. Queens were selected over the years from a pool of contestants from both states. In 1952, Zula Kate Smith of Burnsville was the first NC Rhododendron Queen. There is an unconfirmed account that Bakersville theater owner, O. D. Calhoun, member of the Spruce Pine Lion’s Club, and Bakersville Lion’s Club member Dr. James Berry were the reason the Bakersville Club became involved officially with the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival. The joint celebration continued until 1959. During these years a wide range of political figures made appearances at the festival in addition to thousands of annual visitors. One estimate was that over 10,000 came in 1958 when then Vice-President, Richard Nixon and his wife appeared on the Roan with Tennessee Democratic Governor Frank Clement; a motorcade traveled through Bakersville and Spruce Pine on the way to the Hickory airport. In 1948, NC Governor R. Gregg Cherry attended along with Senator Tom Stewart and TN Governor Jim McCord. Attending in 1949 were Gov. Gordon Browning of TN and Lt. Gov. Pat Taylor, in addition to several dozen officials from both states, over 20 representatives from government offices in Washington. and over 1500 people camping. In 1959, the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival became the North Carolina Rhododendron Festival under the leadership and sponsorship of the Bakersville Lion’s Club with O.D. Calhoun serving as chair of the Queen Contest Committee. James Henline of Henline-Hughes Funeral Home is the sole surviving member of that original group. This began an unprecedented series of travels by the Queen nationally and internationally thanks to the insights and leadership of O. D. Calhoun. In 1961, Nyla Kaye Banner was the first Junior Rhododendron Queen, establishing that position of honor to the current day. In 1972, Bob Hensley began assisting the Festival by managing the sound system. This led to him being asked in 1979, in a last minute request, to emcee the Junior Pageant and the next night the Senior Pageant. He has been Mr. Rhododendron since. He and his wife Janie also have been the queen’s managers since 1998; it’s now a family affair, as his son Rob has been in charge of sound since 1986. More research is required to determine the many ways in which the NC Rhododendron Festival has contributed to the economy and quality of life for Mitchell County and North Carolina. The Mitchell County Historical Society thanks Ashton Chapman posthumously, Sharon Webb for her Images of America book, North Carolina Rhododendron Festival, and Bob Hensley for contributions to this article.

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