Just after sunrise Sunday morning, while my companions still slumbered at the Quality Inn, I slipped out of the motel room and headed back into Charleston, Missouri. Although I had checked in Friday afternoon for the 49th Annual Dogwood-Azalea Festival I couldn’t get enough of this small town in the Upper Delta Region of the Middle Mississippi River Valley.
By Laura (Abernathy) Huffman
The legendary Robin Williams once said “Spring is nature’s way of saying, “Let’s party!” Charleston, at the top of Missouri’s bootheel region, is the perfect place to celebrate Spring. The town has been hosting their Dogwood-Azalea Festival since 1968- and they are quite good at it! So good that the festival has been named to Fodor’s “Top 5 Spring Flower Festivals” (2015, 2016, & 2017) and Expedia has deemed it as a “Top City to Say Goodbye to Winter.”
Although not as prestigious (yet!), the town has also been added to our informal list of “Best Small Town Destinations in Missouri.” And, it earned that honor in the pouring rain! The Population 91 team drove most of the almost four hour trip to southeast Missouri in the rain. As we got closer to our destination the precipitation lessened to a drizzle but the skies were still dark, stormy, and gloomy. The scene brightened dramatically when we entered the “Bloom Factory” headquarters housed at Charleston Chamber of Commerce & Tourism at 110 S. Main. Cheerful smiles and enthusiasm greeted us. Executive Director Karen Teeters spoke with us about the festival as if we were the only people in the room- even though she was staging a four day event and expecting 36,000 visitors! That theme of warmth and friendliness endured during our stay. Every Charlestonian that we spoke with during our visit was helpful and willing to share insider tips with us. They were genuinely interested in making sure that we were having a wonderful time.
Charleston kept us busy. Very busy! We toured St. Henry Catholic Church, the Moore Home (Mississippi County Historical Society), the McKinley Home, the Rowe Home (for sale) and the Warren E. Hearnes Museum. We browsed unique shops, ate the best burgers in Mississippi county, watched a parade in the rain, devoured chicken and waffles, pet a goat, cheered on “Hammy Faye Baker” during a pig race, admired the handiwork of talented vendors, and ate shish kebabs- meat on a stick.
The highlight of the weekend was the candlelight tour along the six mile long Dogwood-Azalea Trail. During the day the trail shows off Charleston’s plentiful historic homes with their manicured gardens and the festival namesake dogwoods and azaleas. Any architecture buff, photographer, or tree/flower admirers would be thrilled experiencing the trail under the sunlight. However, beginning at dusk the trail becomes magical. Thousands of luminaries line the sidewalks and casts their glow across the walkways. Strategic lighting placed with the same care as an extravagant Christmas display highlighted the dogwoods, the azaleas, and the turn of the century homes and mansions. We drove the route and oohed and ahhed before we parked and hit the trail on foot. We walked the trail admiring the workmanship of the historic homes (at least one home is a Sears home) and the green thumbs of the home owners. The mood was very much social- people greeted one another as they passed and a few homes were designated as entertainment locations. We listened to a rousing acoustic rendition of “Million Reasons” by a very talented young woman. As the darkness grew deeper and the unexpected chill became colder locals retreated into their homes and visitors returned to their hotel rooms and RVs.
There were so many activities scheduled that we missed many- the World’s Largest Kit-Cat Clock (at Bear Creek Mercantile until June, 2017), the plant sale, the quilt show and book sale, the dog show, the ice cream social, the fried pie eating contest, the carnival, and the piano praise concert.
Although we didn’t get to see and do it all, Charleston captivated us during our visit- we might have even developed a crush on the town. As a docent at the Moore Home described to us- there is a sweetness to this town and its famous festival. The community absolutely puts its best foot forward to pull off the event. We can’t wait to see how they and their guests party next year during the 50th Annual Dogwood-Azalea Festival.
*During our Charleston, MO adventure Population 91 dined at Bread + Butter (Poplar Bluff), City Limits Grill (Charleston), and Waffle & Pancake House (Charleston). We lodged at Quality Inn which was clean, comfortable, and staffed by a friendly and knowledgeable crew. The hotel offers complimentary hot breakfast. Our trip was not hosted or sponsored and all opinions are those of Population 91 staff.
Learn more about the history of Charleston, MO: