Couple celebrates 55th anniversary, last to wed at Rhododendron Festival

Zach Vance • Updated Jun 17, 2016 at 8:54 AM

This weekend’s 70th annual Rhododendron Festival will be especially significant to one Roan Mountain couple.

Barbara Duck and Hershel Julian each said “I do” 55 years ago on Saturday at an altar near the Roan Mountain High Bluff.

Weddings were a traditional part of the Rhododendron Festival for a number of years, but the Julians were the last couple to have a wedding in conjunction with the event.

One memory that stuck to Barbara Julian about her wedding day was the drastic temperature atop the Roan.

“It was so cold, my lips were blue,” said Julian, who was born in Rutledge, Tennessee. “There were no flowers in bloom that year until July I believe. It was as cold as could be.”

Barbara said because the marriage was technically in North Carolina, when the ceremony ended the pair traveled straight to a Methodist church in Tennessee and made their marriage official.

“The knot was tied very tightly,” she said with a laugh. “We got married on the Roan, then we came down off the mountain and we got married again in the church and had the reception there.

“But it was a joyous affair with a lot of people and most of them just sat on the ground (during the festival). They didn’t have chairs. The hillside was completely covered with people.”

Barbara recalled feeling anxious but also thrilled as she donned her locally made dress inside a tent on the Roan.

“I had on the wedding dress and all that stuff so I was in a tent. I wasn’t out amongst all the people, but it was really exciting.” Julian said.

Nearly a thousand people watched as the Rev. Carroll Sisk presided over the 2:30 p.m. wedding on the final day of the 15th Rhododendron Festival.

Hershel’s brother and best man, Don Julian, recalls cars lining the road for the festival. 

“There would be cars parked from the gap (Carver’s Gap), all the way to the top,” Don Julian said. “The whole mountain was covered with people.” 

Special guest Sonya Wilde, a Tennessee-born actor featured in episodes of “Gunslinger” and “Bonanza,” was in attendance for the Julians’ wedding. 

Barbara recalls getting Wilde to autograph the front of her Rhododendron Festival program.

The Rhododendron Festivals during the ’50s and ’60s usually featured at least one distinguished guest.

Jo Buchanan, president of the Citizens Club and organizer of the festival, said a governor from either Tennessee or North Carolina would typically visit the festival.

Vice President Richard Nixon visited in 1958.

“I can remember Nixon saying in his speech that he was going to make a little White House up there (on the Roan),” said Don Julian, who remembers attending that 1958 festival.

Local businessmen, who formed the Citizens Club, invited U.S. Sen. Tom Stewart to the first festival and lobbied him to build a road to the top of the mountain as well as fund road improvements throughout Carter County.

Buchanan said the first Rhododendron Festival’ had the theme “What We Need — Good Roads in Carter County — We Do Not Have Them.”

At the time, the Roan could only be accessed by a single-lane dirt road called the “Hack Line.” Travel to the top was allowed only during morning hours and travel down the mountain was permitted in the evening hours due to the narrowness of the road.

In 1949, Gov. Gordon Browning reportedly promised a new road to the top of the Roan and three years later one was built, Buchanan said.

After the road’s construction, the festival’s attendance ballooned and a wedding was added to the celebration’s schedule, which began with a man from North Carolina and a woman from Tennessee getting married.

The festival wedding tradition continued until the Julians’ wedding in 1961, when it was discontinued for unknown reasons, Buchanan said.

The U.S. Forest Service eventually put a stop to the festival being on top of the Roan and moved it to the state park in 1979, where it is now held.

Entertainment for this year’s Rhododendron Festival will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday and lasts until late Sunday.


Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP

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