(PHOTOS AND STORY: www.spokanelilacfestival.org
Linguists trace the word “lilac” to the Arabian for blue, “nilack” describing the color obtained when coarse cotton robes were dyed with the fermented juice of the indigo plant. Persians began using the NILAK dye and accepted the Arab word for the pleasing color, but softened it to Nilaj. Persians named the hillside shrub with bluish flowers Nilag. But Nilag meant the indigo dye; to avoid confusion, the word gradually became Lilaj to the Persians and Lilak to the Arabs.
According to local legend, the first lilac bush in our area traveled from Minnesota to Spokane in a trunk in 1882 where it is rumored to have been planted in the yard of an old homestead near Spokane's historic Hillyard neighborhood. In 1896, the Spokane Floral Association held its first meeting and soon thereafter the Spokane Parks Department began officially promoting Spokane as "The Lilac City." By the early 1930’s, a campaign was underway to plant the fragrant and delicate blue and purple bushes around the city. By 1940, there were 30 lilac trees planted in Coeur d’Alene Park (Spokane's first park) in the Browne's Addition neighborhood and 144 trees in Manito Park.
On May 17th, 1938, during what was intended to be a flower show, the very first Lilac Festival parade occurred. The event blossomed into a small “Flower Festival Parade” with a float designed by Walt Peters and seven decorated automobiles. In 1939, a Tea and Card Party was added (the Spokane Lilac Festival still hosts an annual Tea Party at the Davenport Hotel) and later, the Royalty program. In 1940, Shannon Mahoney from North Central High School was nominated and crowned as Spokane’s first Lilac Queen.
In support of the war effort, there were no parades between 1943 and 1945, however the Garden Club remained active in the Spokane community. They held flower shows and gave lilacs to soldiers passing through Spokane on troop trains.
On August 31, 1949, Armed Forces Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced the creation of Armed Forces Day. Because the Spokane Lilac Festival enthusiastically supported the Military (and still does), they modified the original Flower Festival Parade and celebration to include an Armed Forces Day Parade and for a year years anyway, there were two parades. Eventually, the military parade and flower parade merged into one and the Spokane Lilac Festival Armed Forces Torchlight Parade that we all know and love was born. It has become the largest Armed Forces Torchlight Parade in America.
For 79 years, the Spokane Lilac Festival Association has promoted outstanding area youth through the Royalty program, provided support, honor and recognition to our military, and showcased the unique qualities of the city of Spokane with a parade to rival any in the nation attracting an estimated annual attendance of around 150,000 people to the city of Spokane. The Spokane Lilac Festival Armed Forces Torchlight Parade and Festival happens every Spring, the third weekend in May while the lilacs are in full bloom in historic downtown Spokane. Come witness the tradition that defined our city over seven decades ago.