A Tulip Queen rides a float down Main Street at...

A Tulip Queen rides a float down Main Street at the Tulip parade in Babylon, as seen from a photo from the historical archives in the Babylon Old Town Hall. A West Babylon church plans to bring back the festival as part of an anniversary celebration. Credit: Handout

Marching bands, equestrians and ornate floats bedecked with colorful flowers snaked through the streets as throngs of spectators marveled at the passing parade.

It wasn't Pasadena and the Tournament of Roses parade. It was Babylon Town and the Tulip Festival, an event that made for a grand spectacle in the 1940s and 1950s.

Now a West Babylon church plans to bring back the festival as part of an anniversary celebration that will also revisit the town's history as a leader in the tulip industry.

Babylon's turn as tulip town began with Dutch horticulturist Cornelius J. Van Bourgondien Sr., who left Holland to start his own bulb business, said Tom Smith, Babylon Town historian. Van Bourgondien bought 33 acres in West Babylon and began what became a thriving business that attracted other entrepreneurs from Holland.

As a result, Smith said, Babylon Town had one of the largest flower bulb industries in the country from the 1920s to the 1950s. A 1948 newspaper article noted that eight major commercial bulb cultivators raised 16 million flowers locally that year. "What it did for the economy here was amazing," Smith said.

Flower fields flourished, said Babylon Town archivist Mary Cascone, and tulips became a huge part of the area's identity, popping up all over town.

And then there was the tulip festival, which once had a commemorative stamp. Festival events lasted a week, highlighted by the parade and the crowning of a Tulip Queen. There were 15,000 spectators at the 1952 parade, according to a Newsday article from the time.

"It's one of those things that so many people from the town talk about," Cascone said. "Either they were little kids and remember going to the parade, or they heard stories about it."

It's not clear when or why the festivals stopped. News stories from late 1952 mention tensions among organizers over having outsiders compete for Tulip Queen. An article from 1957 notes a town organization trying to "revive" the festival.

The tulip industry soon left town, too, as land values grew and farmers sold their property. The Van Bourgondiens moved to Peconic in the 1970s.

On April 28, Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church -- which sits on land donated by the Van Bourgondiens -- plans to relaunch the tulip festival as part of the church's 50th anniversary celebration. In addition to the parade, there will be a float competition, entertainment and craft vendors.

"Everybody is so excited, I can just tell this is going to be a home run," said Richard Irizarry, a member of the church's anniversary committee who is helping plan the event. More than 350 participants are on board.

The celebration will feature the dedication of a new town museum next to the church, at the Van Bourgondien's 1929 Tudor-style farm house. Smith plans to have each room in the home represent a different decade during the tulip boom, including period dress, music and artifacts. He plans to build a greenhouse nearby so students can learn to grow tulips.

Cascone applauded the festival's return. "People can learn the history of the town and the tulip industry here and at the same time, create their own memories from it."

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