When driving through Valdosta during the early spring one cannot help but notice the large number of azalea bushes that seem to be in bloom on almost every corner. Valdosta’s title as the “Azalea City” is because of one man, Richard J. Drexel.
The name may sound familiar to many in Lowndes County because Drexel Park, located on East Brookwood Drive near Valdosta State University, is named for him. Mr. Drexel, a native of Indiana, went to work for the city of Valdosta as, according to the Valdosta Daily Times, “the city parks everything – laborer, foreman, designer and supervisor.” In 1925, he began planting hundreds of azaleas on public property and private land throughout the city. His first task with the City of Valdosta was to clean up the very overgrown park on the college’s land. After clearing out the debris, underbrush, and even a moonshine still, he started planting the azaleas. He planted hundreds, expanding to the college campus, Sunset Hill cemetery, and along Patterson Street. Additionally, he gave away many extra azaleas every year to homeowners and churches in town.
Mr. Drexel also planted many of the dogwoods, crepe myrtles, and other native trees around the city. He didn’t set out to re-title Valdosta as the Azalea City, he just thought that the large, vibrantly-flowered azalea bushes looked good in town. The title of Azalea City was not officially proposed until 1947 by the garden clubs of Valdosta.
Richard Drexel retired in the spring of 1959 but continued to serve as a consultant and practiced landscaping privately. Upon his retirement, the city council stated in a resolution that “[Mr. Drexel] is in large measure responsible for the beauty of the City of Valdosta and its national recognition as a city of charm and floral elegance and the improvements effected by him and his economy therein are indicative of his deep affection for the City of Valdosta.” He passed away on February 3, 1986 at a hospital in Macon, Georgia.