As Sumter’s namesake, Revolutionary War hero General Thomas Sumter, could not have possibly foreseen the city’s journey, growth, and success experienced as an important supply and railroad repair center moving cotton, timber, and tobacco nor as a leader in textiles, manufacturing, medical and biotech industries. He could not have imagined the city as home to one of the most important military bases in the country. He definitely could not envision a city that was known for its… flowers? Flowers, really. But these are all true and part of the history of Sumter, a city of more than 40,000 people; a city that maintains all the charm of the antebellum era while positioning itself to achieve excellence in the 21st century.
Sumter sits in the middle of South Carolina, a 90-minute drive to the state’s popular beaches and a three-hour drive to the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains. Its downtown is small but vibrant. It is dotted with unique and specialty shops as well as a good number of cafes and restaurants.
Home to Shaw Air Force Base since 1941, Sumter is the quintessential military town. Residents characterize themselves as having “uncommon patriotism; progressive spirit.” The men and women of Shaw AFB are among the first military personnel to be called upon to defend our country. Shaw AFB plays a vital role in the community as do the approximately 18,000 military veterans who reside in and around Sumter. Nearly thirty-three percent of the area’s total economy is based upon Shaw AFB’s presence.
Now, about those flowers: Each year, Sumter welcomes visitors from around the world to experience Swan Lake Iris Gardens, a 150-acre park that nourishes more than 120 varieties of Iris and boasts some of the most Japanese Irises planted in the United States. Together with seasonal blossoms, the Irises deploy an amazing array of colors throughout the park. Known as the crown jewel of the city, Swan Lake Iris Gardens is also home to all eight known swan species. Look out for Canada geese, mallards, wood ducks, muscovies, herons, egrets and more.
The garden came about quite by accident. Its origin dates back to 1927 when businessman Hamilton Carr Bland discarded Iris bulbs by tossing them into a piece of swampland that he had purchased. The offending bulbs had failed to thrive in the garden at his home. To his surprise, the bulbs took root in the damp, acidic soil and yielded beautiful blossoms. Decades later, the garden celebrates with the annual Sumter Iris Festival.
Sumter is an active community with opportunity for golf, tennis, baseball, swimming, hiking, biking, and more. Tennis enthusiasts will enjoy the Palmetto Tennis Center with its state-of-the-art courts and facilities. Here, spectators can enjoy tournaments with players ranked locally to internationally. Tournaments include the Palmetto Pro Open; the USTA Regional, and the Conference Carolinas, to name a few. In 2016, the Center was named a Top Tier American Tennis Facility.
While in town, visitors will want to attend a performance at the Sumter Opera House, a historical site that has been lovingly restored to be a state-of-the-art performance theater. The Opera House presents both musical and theatrical performances.
Untapped: Food Truck and Craft Beer Festival, Sumter County Fairgrounds, noon-7 p.m., March 4:
If you love mobile cuisine and a nice cold brew... this is the event for you! More details at www.sumtergreen.org or www.sumterfair.com.
Mary Edna Fraser & Virginia Scotchie Artist Exhibition, Sumter Gallery of Art, 200 Hasel Street, March 2-April 21: For more information call (803) 775-0543 or visit www.sumtergalley.org.