Katie Bryant has fond memories of serving as an Azalea Belle shortly after the practice began of having them greet visitors to Tyler's Azalea and Spring Flower Trails. She has noticed big changes between Azalea Belles back then and now.
Wearing antebellum-style attire, the Azalea Belles are marking their 50th anniversary this year of serving as ambassadors and official greeters along the trail.
"Since we've had the Azalea Belles out on the trail for 50 years now, visitors have come to expect them and they are an attraction on their own," Holli Conley, marketing/communication manager for Tyler Convention and Visitors Bureau, said.
Susan Travis, the bureau's assistant vice president of tourism/servicing, added, "They add charm and distinction to the trail; they have been a huge success."
People in town want their daughters to be a Belle and it is considered a big honor for them, while having the Belles as ambassadors along the trail promotes Tyler and assists tourists, Ms. Conley added. The Belles answer questions and refer visitors to local restaurants and attractions.
The Azalea Belles made their debut in 1964 when two Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce secretaries donned southern belle costumes and posed for photos along the trail amid "a riot of colorful azaleas," a 1964 chamber newsletter reported.
The secretaries made their own costumes, Ms. Travis said.
By the spring of 1967 when Ms. Bryant served as an Azalea Belle, there had been a switch from having chamber secretaries serve as Belles to having girls who were high school seniors dressed in antebellum costumes provided to them.
"I liked it. It did get tiring, of course, but it was a fun thing to do," Ms. Bryant said. "I had not done that kind of thing before or since. I loved the gardens, and the people were friendly."
That was a time before digital cameras, Ms. Bryant recalled. "People took pictures but you never saw them. I have no idea of whose pictures I might have been in."
Those early Belles didn't receive any instruction. "It was like, ‘Here's the dress and look pretty and good luck,'" Mrs. Bryant said.
Back then, the Belles did not engage in a lot of conversation with visitors on the trail, Ms. Bryant remembers. "It was mostly just ‘hello' and people taking pictures with their families or friends," she said.
The Belles stood smiling in front of banks of flowers. "We were props … and just a decoration out there," Ms. Bryant said. "There wasn't interaction, not then, but it was the beginning."
When Ms. Bryant came back to Tyler during the Azalea Trails one year, she noticed the Belles were near the front door of homes and that visitors have more opportunity to talk with them than the Belles in her day had.
The dresses in those days, Ms. Bryant said, "had giant hoop petticoats from the south so we couldn't drive. Someone had to drop us off in our appropriate yard."
Ms. Bryant, 64, now a retired teacher, said it was "nice being a piece of Tyler (and) representing Tyler. That was special."
Afterward, she probably smiled more than she did before serving as a Belle because the Belles wanted to appear pleasant and photogenic, Ms. Bryant said.
Ms. Bryant did not do anything to get to become an Azalea Belle.
"My understanding was that someone contacted the counselor at Robert E. Lee High School and asked her to suggest three people. Whether that's accurate or not, I don't know. She (the counselor) informed me and the other two that we had been selected to do this," Ms. Bryant recollects. "There were only the three of us."
Although now living in New Mexico, Ms. Bryant occasionally returns to Tyler during the Azalea Trails. She has noticed there are more Azalea Belles than before, they are younger and there is more diversity.
When Ms. Travis began working for the visitors bureau in 2004, the number of Azalea Belles had risen to approximately 20 and this year there are 33 high school freshmen and sophomores serving as Belles.
Even though 33 girls sounds like a lot, they are split into two shifts of about 15, with at least two girls normally placed at six homes scattered along the trail on Saturdays and Sundays, Ms. Travis said.
The need for the Belles has grown over the years as length of the trail and attractions conducted in conjunction with the trails increased, Ms. Conley said.
Originally, there was a five-mile route in 1960 when the Azalea Trail was started and by 1986, it had expanded to two trails stretching 10 miles and attracting approximately 100,000 visitors.
The Belles are scattered more heavily in popular areas along the trail, including homes on Lindsey, College and Dobbs streets.
Unlike the early days of the Azalea Belles, now there is an application and selection process for the Belles.
High school freshmen and sophomore girls can apply in January each year to serve as an Azalea Belle.
The visitors bureau emails the application forms to all schools in Smith County, posts the form on its web site and it is available in the bureau office. Girls who are home-schooled can apply along with girls in public and private schools.
Once the applications come in, the bureau interviews each girl and later notifies girls that have been selected. Girls passed over are advised to apply the next year if eligible.
A couple of weeks after girls are chosen to be a Belle, Ms. Travis conducts an orientation.
"I go over everything with them as to how they are expected to behave and the rules," she said.
The Belles are along the trail to answer questions, Ms. Conley said, because a lot of out-of-town trail visitors want to know where is a good place to eat and what else there is to do in Tyler while they are here.
Once girls are selected to be a Belle, Ms. Travis sets appointments for them to come for their costume fittings. "We provide the entire costume except the gloves; they purchase their own gloves," she said.
The visitors bureau, which is funded by the hotel tax, pays for the dresses and its collection has grown to about 40 to 45.
Girls chosen come in and try them on until they find one that fits. If they don't find one that fits, Ms. Travis gives the girl's measurements to a seamstress who makes one.
"This year we didn't have to have any made. Last year I had three made," Ms. Travis said, noting that occasionally dresses are retired as they get worn out.
At the end of the season, the girls turn the dresses in, they are cleaned and stored.