History of the Winterville Marigold Festival
by Donny Seagraves
Transport yourself back to the year 1971, the time of the first ever Marigold Festival in Winterville, Georgia. Richard Nixon was president of the United States. The controversial Vietnam War raged as college students and citizens of all ages marched in antiwar protests. Our first manned outer space all-terrain sports utility vehicle, the Lunar Rover, was about to explore the moon’s surface during the Apollo 15 mission while we watched on TV.
Meanwhile, back in Winterville, Georgia, population 551, we wore bell-bottomed jeans, love beads and long hair and thought everything was “groovy.” In the heyday of “flower-power,” and “all you need is love,” the Winterville Marigold Festival began with a flower and the idea of rejuvenating the community and extending friendship to the world.
Wesley Whitehead, a new mayor in the seventies, didn’t wear love beads or long hair, but apparently he did appreciate “flower power.” Looking around his hometown, he didn’t like what he saw. The railroad tracks that used to bring out-of-town students to Winterville High School and drummers (salesmen) to town to call on the various merchants that operated businesses in the area, were now deserted and overgrown with weeds. The old depot railroad station, dilapidated, was used as a warehouse for strong-smelling, rat-breeding feed. Across the square, the frame building that had once served as an office for Drs. Carter and Coile sagged, unpainted, and often flooded from a caving roof. Other buildings on the square also were in serious disrepair.
An official floral symbol for Winterville might help revive interest in the community, Wesley decided. So he asked the Civinette Club, a ladies’ auxiliary of the Civitans, to come up with a flower for Winterville. After some discussion, Mattie Coile suggested the Marigold. She pointed out that it was bright, hardy and was a symbol of friendship all over the world, dating back to Cortez’s time.
Since gold was the primary color of the 70s, the marigold was the perfect choice for an official flower, and it soon caught on in Winterville. Citizens planted marigolds, in front of businesses and homes. Hundreds more of the perky flowers were planted along the railroad tracks, forming a gold and green carpet.
Mayor Wesley Whitehead looked at the beautiful marigolds blooming around town and decided that a community festival would be just the thing to promote community spirit and friendship. It would also help fund the restoration projects that had already begun and might encourage Winterville’s people to do things together again and former residents to return and join in the activities.
As is the case with any new idea, some first reactions to the festival proposal were less than enthusiastic. But the mayor persevered and gathered members of the community for a meeting where he emphasized the possibilities of the festival. The Marigold Festival would bring hundreds of visitors to Winterville and would help preserve American art, crafts, and music, he told citizens. The $5 fee paid by vendors would help cover festival expenses, and any profits of the festival would go toward restoration and beautification projects in the community. Citizens agreed to hold the first annual Marigold Festival June 18-19, 1971, and preparations began. According to an early newspaper account, 10,000 marigolds were planted by Winterville’s citizens in one day in preparation for the upcoming festival. A former resident of Winterville, Jimmy Coile, who was a landscape architect with the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, donated plans for a fountain in the town square in honor of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. C. S. Coile. Citizens raised money to build the fountain on land donated in 1869 by Sarah Pittard, beneath the shade of two stately deodar cedars.
A program from Winterville’s first annual Marigold Festival lists an outstanding lineup of entertainment and events. There was a 10:00 a.m. “excursion train ride.” Antique furniture was auctioned in the park by a well-known area auctioneer, Claude Pardue. In the field behind the Baptist Church, the Methodist Youth Group and the Baptist Youth Group competed in a softball game. At 6:00 p.m., a barbecue chicken supper with all the trimmings was prepared by local resident Dick Hodges who had the reputation of cooking barbecue “better than the best.” A square dance was held on Town Square around the new fountain. Billy Dillworth, Talmadge Craig and the Playboys, and the Mountain City Cloggers entertained. Cornbread, cold buttermilk and “real country butter” were available in the Blacksmith shed on the Square. Antiques were displayed in the Depot, including Mrs. Jack Thomas’s antique doll collection. Festival attendees could purchase “cold watermelon, sugar-cured hams, fresh Georgia peaches and fresh produce” from stands in the Town Square area. A highlight of the first festival was demonstrations of craft work including Michael Pitts’s pottery and Ed Dye’s hand-dipped candles. Demonstrated crafts also included copper jewelry making, spinning, decoupage, tole painting, furniture refinishing, engraving, quilting and making peanut brittle.
In the park, The Merrymakers, a Dixieland Band that included Mary Whitehead on piano and vocalist Joan Biles, entertained, along with many others. Winterville’s first Marigold Festival parade was led by the Third Army Band. A picture in the Sunday, June 20, 1971 Athens Banner-Herald/Daily News, shows Lt. Gov. Lester Maddox and his wife riding in a convertible, which was driven through the streets of Winterville by Mayor Wesley Whitehead, who was dressed in a tuxedo. Along the parade route, Maddox got out of the car and performed his famous stunt, riding his bicycle backwards. Winterville still has that bicycle today. Maddox was also the keynote speaker at Winterville’s first Marigold Festival. Other special guests that first year included: Marianne Gordon, a former Winterville resident (now former wife of entertainer Kenny Rogers) and a regular on the Hee-Haw Television show; WAGA-TV Sports Director Ed Thilenius; State Sen. Paul Brown; Grady Pittard, judge of the State Court of Clarke County and a Winterville native; Joan Biles, chairwoman of the steering committee for the festival; and Brenda Seagraves of Winterville, a former “Miss Pandora” at the University of Georgia who also competed in the Miss America Pageant.
Joan Biles (who later became Winterville’s first female mayor) and Sybil Deacon served as the first Chairpersons of the Marigold Festival Committee, with Mayor Wesley Whitehead as Honorary Chairman, and Whitehead and his wife, Mary, as official Host and Hostess. At the Miss Marigold pageant, Marie Fleeman (Evans) was chosen as our first Miss Marigold. The highlight of the second Marigold Festival was the dedication of the newly refurbished Carter-Coile Country Doctor’s Museum.
At the third festival, in 1973, the historic train station was highlighted. The fourth Marigold Festival featured the dedication of our community library.
Over the past 30 years, Winterville has staged a Marigold Festival each June. Because of this annual community celebration, our town is known across America as “the Marigold Capital of the World,” and “the place where the marigold works its magic.” Countless community volunteers and businesses have donated time, talent and resources to make the Winterville Marigold Festival a success. Employees and elected officials of the City of Winterville have done likewise. As the official radio station of the Marigold Festival, WNGC has provided live coverage of the festival on Marigold Saturday.
The Winterville Marigold Festival was discontinued in 2003 by the Board of Directors of Marigold Festival, Inc., the nonprofit corporation that sponsored and administered the festival and the committee for the festival. The board thanks all volunteers, past and present for all that hard work and all those wonderful marigold memories.
Note: After being discontinued n 2003, the Marigold Festival was revived a few years later by former mayor, Emily Eisenman and a dedicated group of volunteers.
This article is reprinted in a slightly altered form from The Winterville Marigold Festival’s 25th anniversary issue of The Winterville Iceberg. It is used with the permission of the author. © 1995 Donny B. Seagraves.