Conyers Cherry Blossom Festival hits 30 years

Staff Photo: Erin Evans. An unidentified shopper at last year's Cherry Blossom Festival examines the wares.

Staff Photo: Erin Evans. An unidentified shopper at last year's Cherry Blossom Festival examines the wares.

CONYERS -- What started as a kind gesture of friendship between two different cultures has literally blossomed over the past 30 years into an event which draws tens of thousands of people -- the annual Conyers Cherry Blossom Festival.

This year's festival runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 26 and 27 at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers. More than 300 local and regional vendors are expected. The lineup includes children's activities, food, arts and crafts, continuous entertainment, international music and performances, and civic and non-profit organizations. Admission is free. Parking is $5.

The festival was named a Top 20 event by the Southeast Tourism Society for March 2011.

Local residents who witnessed the genesis of the festival three decades ago recently spoke to the Citizen about just how the event came to fruition.

City of Conyers Tourism Manager Harriet Gattis said the city had its first festival following a 1980 gift from Hideo Ogino, former president of the Maxell Corporation in Conyers. The company used to occupy the buildings on Parker Road in what is now the Rockdale County government annex buildings.

Ogino presented the city with 500 yoshino cherry trees, the same trees that bloom at the nation's Capitol. Half of the trees were planted on the Maxell property and the other 250 trees were presented to then-mayor Charles Walker to plant around the city, including in front of the railroad tracks coming into the city.

Walker said the trees were presented at a banquet and the city was "delighted" to receive the gift.

"It was a gesture of friendship and (they wanted) to make themselves feel an important part of the community," Walker said.

In Japan, the community celebrated under the cherry trees when they bloomed. In the spirit of that tradition, Maxell worked with the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce and the first festival was held in 1981 on the Maxell property.

Maxell continued to lead in event planning until 1991 when a foundation took it over. In 1997, the festival outgrew the Maxell property and moved to the Georgia International Horse Park. In 1999, the festival became a two-day event.

Darlene Partain, now a sales manager at the horse park, worked at Maxell in the 1980s and served as festival chairperson when the festival moved. She recalled the smaller event where the Japanese wives were very involved and taught everyone bon odori, a traditional Japanese dance.

"At that time, there probably weren't that many Japanese here in Georgia. So it was a new culture. They wanted to introduce the culture as a gesture of friendship," Partain said. "It's just a goodwill gesture of friendship that we all do have differences and yet those qualities are so important to share."

Gattis said the international flair of the festival helped prepare Conyers to host events for the 1996 Olympic games. The community was already used to a lot of cultures when it invited the world to come to Conyers for the Olympics.

"The diversity that it brought to the community long before we were really honing in on being diverse sort of made us international way before other communities were thinking about it," Gattis said.

Today, the blooming of the delicate pink flowers heralds spring and the trees have always been at the heart of the event.

"From the onset of the festival ... the community has always had an opportunity to buy (cherry blossom trees) and the community has always been encouraged to plant them in their own residences and businesses," Gattis said.

Partain said the Conyers Cherry Blossom Festival owes its 30-year success to those who worked so hard to establish it in its early years.

"It took a team to make that event," Partain said. "Without them, it wouldn't be what it is today."