“It is the purpose of the South Florida Gladioli Festival and Fair Association, Inc., through its officers and board of directors to exhibit, develop and further the agricultural, horticultural and other resources of south Florida, and in connection therewith through displaying, advertising and other media, to present to the people of south Florida, and the world in general, the many and varied advantages to be had and enjoyed in this section of the Sunshine State.”
– a 1948 Delray News article featured the original mission of the Gladiola Festival
Long before the Delray Affair in its current form came to dominate Atlantic Avenue, the Gladiola Festival had a successful 8-year run as Palm Beach County’s feature attraction.
After a long depression beginning in Florida during 1926 and the difficult years of World War II during the 1940s, the people of Delray Beach decided to have a big festival and fair to celebrate and promote the gladiolus farming business. From 1947 through 1953, the festival welcomed movie stars like Vera Ellen to West Atlantic Avenue. It was a modern day fair, with special exhibits and farm animals. Local builders brought miniature homes to showcase their projected developments, cars were given away, and there were even regatta races on Lake Ida. The Gladiolus Festival Parade was the biggest event in town, with lavish, flower covered floats and the crowning of Gladioli Queens.
The main attraction, however, were the Gladiolas, brightly colored flowering plants from Africa. The gladiolus growing business began in 1939 and the 1940s and 1950s were the heyday for farming. Centered between Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, there were at least 11 nurseries growing 14 varieties of gladioli, making Palm Beach County the leading source for the popular flowers. By 1950, Delray producers were shipping out 2 million gladiola bundles and paying $500,000 in annual wages. Delray Beach became the leading grower of Gladiolus flowers in the US, with more than 13 Gladiolus growers, contributing to a more than a $1 million-a-year industry. An area totaling 1,600 acres was under cultivation, producing varieties such as the salmon-colored Picardy, the magenta Paul Rubens, the delicate pink Rose Van Lima, the Morning Kiss and the Snow Princess.
The current Delray Affair has evolved into a multi-faceted extravaganza. Development in the city’s western reaches, combined with a shift in farming from flowers to vegetables, turned the Gladioli Festival into a small Agricultural Expo. In 1962, community leaders organized a committee that wanted to expand it to include arts and crafts. “The Delray Affair” was chosen as the name of the bigger event. The committee was money-minded, too. By scheduling the festival later in the year, they could effectively extend the tourist season by tempting snowbirds to postpone their homeward migration until after Easter, and extend the tradition of commerce, frivolity and flowers, culture.