With the 2017 Sumter Iris Festival now over, it's appropriate to recognize the contributions of one of Sumter's outstanding citizens, Hamilton Carr Bland. A look back at the early gardeners and horticulturists of the community must include Bland, Julia Lester Dillon, Dr. J.R. Dunn and many other talented civic-minded citizens.
H.C. Bland was born in the hamlet of Mayesville on Sept. 20, 1880. His mother and father, James Finley and Mary Johnson Bland, were successful in several business pursuits in Mayesville. His father worked in the lumber business and operated a store. Hamilton was the youngest of three sons; because of a debilitating illness, he spent a great portion of his youth in a wheelchair. Because of his lack of mobility, he "worked with his hands and tinkered with watches and clocks."
After undergoing years of therapy, he could leave the wheelchair, and he began the study of jewelry making and watch repair in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He later opened a jewelry business in his father's store. He enrolled at Furman University, attending the school in 1904 and 1905. Upon leaving Furman, he met and married Miss Coralie Holly, a native of Fairfield County. In 1901, he bought the third automobile to arrive in South Carolina. His fascination with the automobile led him to build a car that had several "strikingly modern features."
In 1917, Bland moved to Sumter, where he would acquire a franchise selling Hudson-Essex automobiles. He later sold electric cars, which enjoyed a brief period of success. However, his love of and success in marketing the automobile led to his acquiring a Ford Motor dealership, which he retained for 30 years.
Bland's fascination with what became Swan Lake began in 1927 when he purchased "a small pond on the northern side of Liberty Street in the western section of Sumter." According to Mary Cuttino Synder, Bland purchased this property "with the dual intention of using it for fishing and developing it as a garden and bird sanctuary." He spent countless hours having fallen limbs, tangles of lily pads and logs removed. "Using the trash, undergrowth and mud cleared from the pond - as well as papers, magazines, tin cans and even dirt from Hampton Avenue when it was paved - Bland had 10 islands constructed in the now clear black water pond. The garden was stocked by Bland with a variety of birds, but Mrs. Snyder recounts alligators destroyed them so quickly that he was often tempted to give up in disgust."
Bland would secure all eight varieties of swans from numerous sites around the world. The name of his pond changed from "First Mill" to the current "Swan Lake" because of the arrival of the birds. While developing his gardens, Bland became interested in the Japanese iris, which he first attempted to grow at his home on Hampton Avenue. He later dug them up and moved them to the pond, where they immediately grew because of the acidic content of the water. More irises were planted later, and the gardens were rapidly expanded to their present dimensions by 1938, when A.T. Heath purchased 70 acres across Liberty Street. He deeded this former mill pond to the city on the condition that Bland oversee the development.
The broken dam at Liberty Street was repaired, and thousands of iris plants were transported across the street and replanted on the Heath tract. The vision of J.J. Brennan led to the creation of the first Iris Festival held in 1940. The celebration of Sumter's latest garden attracted attention from far and wide.
"On Dec. 2, 1946, Mr. Bland was given an international radio salute over 450 stations of the Mutual Broadcasting System with an estimated listening audience of 10 million listeners." The gardens were eventually deeded to the City of Sumter with the understanding that there be no charge for admission.
Following the death of his wife, Bland moved to Summerville to be near his daughter. He died on Aug. 24, 1967, in Summerville Hospital after a lengthy illness. His son had preceded him in death, having died in a plane crash at an early age. Bland was interred in Sumter Cemetery.
Information from The Item archives and the writings of Mary Cuttino Snyder were used in preparing this article.