Crowds of people sporadically flooded through the park’s entrance, eager to see renovations to a scenic Lowcountry attraction—Cypress Gardens. With cell phones and digital cameras in hand, they snapped photos and took videos of the day’s merriment.
Many park-goers relaxed on new wooden swings, soaking in sunlight, while some lined the boat dock ramp waiting for a chance to paddle through the swamp. Still others searched for Painted Ladies fluttering throughout the Butterfly House.
But for all who explored the site on Saturday, the spring air was filled with a unique mix of lively music, streaming from speakers, and high-pitched salutations from tropical birds.
“They have missed ya’ll extremely,” said Heather McDowell, park director, to Saturday’s crowd.
Often found hanging upside-down in its enclosure, a white cockatoo named Tritan proved to be the feathered group’s most vocal member. Blurting “hello” and “bye-bye” to passers-by, he stole onlookers’ attention and solicited smiles and laugher. Park-goers also appeared amused at the sound of Tritan's favorite question: “What’s your name?”
Ohio resident Chuck Crecelivus made sure to record the humorous banter to watch later and show friends back home. He and his wife Debbie were visiting Cypress Gardens for the first time.
“I got to video the birds and walked half the swamp,” Crecelivus said.
The out-of-state visitor also spied the park’s two largest resident reptiles, Boss and Alley.
“I saw a lot of gators and still have all my fingers,” he said with a laugh.
According to park staff, the alligators received a new, larger enclosure during renovations, thanks to help from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. At more than 13 feet long, Boss boasts the title of the Palmetto State’s largest gator in captivity, McDowell said.
Nearly four years after closing for heavy rainfall that park staff said filled almost every building with 1 to 4 inches of water and completely covered the front columns, Saturday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony was a moment many—including staff, county officials and community members—had been eagerly awaiting, sometimes unsure if it would ever happen.
“We really became uncertain whether the park was going to reopen,” said Johnny Cribb, county supervisor. “We’re getting calls from all over the country saying, 'When are you going to get this place open?'"
But reopening the park and restoring it to conditions even better than before historic flood damage became a “tremendous undertaking” for Cribb and county staff. He said he visited the 170-acre Moncks Corner site nearly every day after he took office in early January. County and park staff and dozens of volunteers flooded the park day and night to finish the $2.1 million restoration project.
“We’ve known we had great people, and we’ve learned that big time,” Cribb said of county employees unified effort.
Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office even enlisted the aid of inmates to drain the park’s swamp and clean it up before it was refilled with water. But 2015 wasn’t the first time Mother Nature had forced the park to close. County staff said Hurricane Hugo also greatly damaged the site in 1989.Owned at the time by the City of Charleston, city leaders had the park repaired and handed over ownership to Berkeley County, according to Hannah Moldenhauer, public information officer for the county.
“And now it certainly is a Berkeley County gem,” she said.
Through tears of joy, McDowell urged visitors to take advantage of the park and all the added animals and features it has to offer. Berkeley County residents can also visit anytime through June without having to pay park admission.
“Just please enjoy the park,” McDowell said. “Thank you for hanging in there with us. I’m sorry that it took so long, but I hope you really enjoy it.”
But one person who’s been deemed a critical part of the Cypress Gardens story was unable to witness the day’s excitement. Former County Supervisor Jim Rozier, who passed away in February, was adamant about the county building up the park in a way that would stir the community to visit and make the county proud, according to his widow Kathy Rozier.
“He loved the vision of the Butterfly House and the gators. …We were here when they…wrestled (the gators) in,” she said.
Kathy Rozier also laughed as she remembered Jim once suggesting adding an ice skating rink to the park.
“It was his baby,” she said.
The county estimated between 2,500 and 3,000 people flocked to Cypress Gardens on reopening day.
According to county staff, the rich history of Cypress Gardens dates back to the 18th century when it served as part of the Dean Hall Rice Plantation. Under new ownership the site later operated as a hunting preserve before it sold again to a man named Benjamin Kittredge.
The county said he excavated the site to create impoundments similar to Black Water Swamp, which led to the recruitment of Cypress trees, his a favorite of Kittredge’s wife. He continued to fill the property with her beloved tree and slowly created a garden preserve.
Initially known for its colorful, lush greenery planted along a system of trails, the park was first opened to the public in 1932. The Kittredge family later sold the property to Charleston for just $1 in 1963.
Four years later, the home of Dean Hall Plantation’s original owner was discovered on site and moved to Moncks Corner. Today Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce operates out of the building, the county said.