PICKENS - Even as the first drops of rain splashed on the streets of Pickens during the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, Azalea Festival director Russ Gantt and about 20 planning committee members and city employees rushed about preparing the area for the onslaught of visitors they knew would come.
As a chilly wind sent the rain-soaked workers scrambling for warmer jackets, they doggedly continued in their race to make certain the 2008 Azalea Festival was the best in its 24 years of existence - despite Mother Nature's unexpected decision to take a temporary step back to winter.
But when the sun broke free from the gray clouds, the festival took on a different life.
"I've been doing this for the past five years," Gantt said. "This is the first year that it has rained."
Still, Gantt said that despite the rainy start, Saturday's event was extremely successful.
"We had such a variety of everything this year - different types of food being offered, an array of arts and crafts vendors, a lot of non-profit service and civic representatives, and most any type of entertainment anyone could want," he said. "The variety was great."
Kicking off Friday evening with the Classic Car Cruise-In and the Alabama Blues Brothers, sponsored by The Pickens Sentinel, wowing the audience on Main Stage, the festival saw over 5,000 people filling the streets, Gantt said.
"We had about 150 classic cars for the cruise-in," Gantt said. "That's 50 more than last year's festival."
The carnival, featuring an assortment of rides for both kids and adults, operated at a filled capacity most of the evening and stayed open long after the last performance on the stage, he said.
Although the festival's start came a bit slower than previous years due to the rainy weather, Gantt said he was very pleased with the turnout in both vendors and crowd.
Pickens Fire Department Chief David Porter said that his agency cleared over $2,800 for their fire-relief fund as firemen served grilled hamburgers and French fries.
"We served 500 hamburgers," he said. "That's down from the 750 we served last year, but that's due to the weather this year and we also shut down a little earlier."
Meg Benko, executive director of Pickens County Meals on Wheels, said that she was excited about the turnout for the agency's first annual chili cook-off.
"We had a lot of people in, and a hot bowl of chili went well with the weather today," she said.
The festival ended on a high note to the smooth beach sounds of the Craig Woolard Band, which was sponsored by Brian Raines and Ameriprise Financial, Gantt said.
Pickens Police Department Chief Tommy Ellenburg said this year's festival saw few problems.
"EMS was only called out two times, for a man suffering a seizure and for a child who tripped and fell," he said. "And we only had one report of a lost child, but he was found within five minutes.
"But the boy knew where he was all along - he thought his mother was lost," he said.
City of Pickens Mayor David Owens said the 2008 Azalea Festival was the best in the event's 24 year history.
"The turnout was really great, and we all appreciate Russ Gantt and the committee for all the hard work they do in making the festival a success," he said.
The Azalea Festival is the largest event held in Pickens, Owens said.
Gantt said that with the ending of this year's festival, the committee will start considering the event's 25 year celebration, slated for April 2008.
"Each year we try to make it bigger and better," Gantt said. "Everyone should mark their calendars for next year - it is going to be really special."