In 1973 Gene McKay’s rich and robust radio voice rode the airwaves around the Midlands. Gene hailed from Chicago, had a quick wit and a wicked sense of humor. During this particular morning show, he mused about a discovery that piqued his curiosity. Gene shared that at the corner of Fork Avenue and Woodrow Street in Irmo, he observed a white two-story building named “The Ancient Irmese General Store.” Gene was tickled. Who were the Ancient Irmese, and what were they like? With a grin, Gene said, “They were probably short people — a farming tribe who lived off okra!”
While Gene continued to muse, Stan Folk turned off his radio and stepped out of his white Datsun 240Z with a handsome smile. Standing 6 feet 2 inches, Stan was not from short stock, but his father did grow up farming okra in the heart of Irmo, as did his grandfather. His grandmother used a wood-burning stove to cook what remained of their most valuable crop. Stan preferred his okra fried, with a dash of salt.
He shrugged, knowing that Gene’s assessment was not entirely inaccurate. But what Gene did not know was how tightknit this small Southern community was or how fast word could travel. Stan was not the only ancient Irmese who heard Gene McKay’s morning show that day. It was only a matter of hours before the Lake Murray-Irmo Women’s Club members began to swap stories of their reactions to Gene’s comment about their community. Although these ladies were humble servants of Irmo, they were just as quick-witted as Gene. They seized the opportunity to capitalize on Irmo’s radio publicity and hatched a plan to fry and sell okra to raise funds for the town’s first library. In October 1973, the Irmo Okra Strut was born in a park 3 miles south of the Ancient Irmese General Store.
It has been 50 years since Stan heard the radio show that started it all. Back then, he had no idea how much his own story would eventually intersect with the Irmo Okra Strut. Stan remembers crossing the railroad tracks as a young boy to buy the coldest Coca-Cola in town from the Ancient Irmese General Store. He had most likely spent the day hunting or chasing rabbits on his grandparents’ land where Lexington Medical Center now stands on St. Andrews Road — the same land where his father helped his grandfather farm okra, milk cows, and raise chickens in the dark and gloomy hours before school.
“The only thing about Irmo that has remained the same after all these years is those railroad tracks,” says Stan. By the time he graduated from Irmo High School, he could grab a Coke from any number of stores along St. Andrews Road. And by the time the Okra Strut made its debut, Stan would have a bride, a Datsun 240Z, and a house in the heart of his hometown.
Stan can’t recall attending the first Okra Strut, but his wife, Judy, quickly remembers that he was quite a spectacle in a bright green sport coat as he snacked on some fried okra with a dash of salt. The Strut started small in a parking lot with just a few vendors selling arts and crafts and the ladies from the Lake Murray-Irmo Women’s Club handing out paper boats of fried okra in exchange for a few dollars. Seven Struts later, their famous fried okra fully funded Irmo’s first library. The Okra Strut brought more exhibitors each year, garnered more publicity, and entertained many more people.
As the Okra Strut grew, so did Stan’s family. In 1979, Judy gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Bryan at Lexington Medical Center. He would be the catalyst that inspired the Folks to start their own business in their community. In 1984, Bryan’s Cleaners opened its doors to the people of Irmo on Lake Murray Boulevard.
“My goal every day was to make sure every customer left with a smile,” says Judy. “We made our customers our family — they were our community.” Judy and Stan’s eyes turn misty as they reminisce about doing business in Irmo.
“We tried to pour back into our community by doing special projects,” says Stan. The Folks raised funds for various needs, collected coats for people experiencing homelessness, and beautified their corner of town every Christmas. In 1988, Judy devised a larger-than-life idea that would leave a legacy in their hometown for generations.
“I wanted something that would really stand out at the Okra Strut,” says Judy. So, she put pencil to paper and sketched out a piece of okra with eyes, a nose, and a giant smile. Judy wrote at the bottom of her drawing, “Mr. Okra Man.” After consulting with a company specializing in making these kinds of visions come to life, Judy learned the price tag was slightly more than she anticipated. Not one to be deterred, Judy told Stan she wanted to ask the bank for a loan.
“I told her I wasn’t going to talk to a banker about borrowing money for a giant balloon,” Stan says as he shakes his head with a smile. But Judy boldly collected her drawings, met with the banker, and secured the funds to bring Mr. Okra Man to life just in time for the 1988 Okra Strut.
In the days leading up to the parade, Mr. Okra Man towered 15 feet over Lake Murray Boulevard, just outside Bryan’s Cleaners. Traffic slowed to a crawl past the giant balloon as word spread about Irmo’s latest attraction. Newspapers featured articles about Judy’s giant and advertised that attendees could get their picture taken with Mr. Okra Man on Friday night before the parade on Saturday.
“We had several naysayers tell us that no one was going to want their picture taken,” says Judy. But as it turned out, it was a miracle that Irmo had enough Polaroid film to meet the demand on Sept. 30, 1988. All of Irmo seemed willing to stand in line to have their turn in the spotlight with this giant green pod. Even the late U.S. House Rep. Floyd Spence and the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond stopped by for their shot with the Okra Man. “We ended up taking more than 1,200 pictures that night,” she says. Proceeds from the pictures benefited the Coats for the Coatless campaign.
The next day, Stan and Judy mounted Mr. Okra Man on a trailer bed and pulled him through town with a tractor in the parade. This would be the first of many Irmo tours for its “Jolly Green Giant.”
Celebrating 50 Years
The year 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the Irmo Okra Strut. What once began as a small fundraiser in a parking lot has evolved into a two-day festival filled with family fun. “It’s amazing that the wonder from Gene McKay somehow turned into what we now know as the Okra Strut,” says Mike Ward, the Okra Strut Commission chairman.
Although many aspects have changed, several Strut staples remain the same. “The Okra Man is not only the leader of the parade, but he also stands at the front and welcomes everyone to the event,” says Mike. Families continue to line up to have their picture taken next to the Okra Man as he towers over the town. In 1992, Stan and Judy Folk sold Bryan’s Cleaners and donated the Okra Man to the Lake Murray-Irmo Rotary Club. “It does my heart good to know that he is still part of the Okra Strut and part of the community,” says Judy. The Folks say that the Rotary has done a superb job maintaining the Okra Man over the past 30 years.
Additionally, the Lake Murray-Irmo Women’s Club remains the exclusive vendor of fried okra at the Okra Strut. Men run the deep fryers under a giant white tent while the ladies serve the snack in paper boats as they have done for 50 years. After the Women’s Club fully funded the Irmo Library, they turned the Okra Strut into a partnership with the Town of Irmo. “We are sure to keep at least one of the Women’s Club members on our commission every year,” says Mike. The partnership has expanded over the past few years to include a long-term naming sponsor, Lexington Medical Center. Each year, the parade runs past the medical center on St. Andrews Road, where Stan grew up chasing rabbits.
Finally, Mike says that the heart of the Strut remains the same. “Ultimately, we strive to maintain the original purpose — we want to improve our community,” he says. “If our proceeds exceed our budget, we turn it around and put it right back into our community.” The Okra Strut has helped fund the sidewalks at Irmo Community Park, projects at the fire and police stations, as well as scholarships for Irmo and Dutch Fork seniors. And remarkably, the two-day event is exclusively volunteer-run. “We are a bunch of neighbors willing to help out and pitch in,” says Mike. “When we all pitch in, we can pull off something really amazing.”
This year, the first day of the Lexington Medical Center Irmo Okra Strut will be Friday, Sept. 29, from 6 p.m. to midnight. The parade begins Saturday, Sept. 30, promptly at 9 a.m. and runs down St. Andrews Road from Crossroads Intermediate School to Irmo Elementary. After the parade, attendees can enjoy food vendors and exhibitors in Irmo Community Park as well as entertainment beginning at noon.
The Town of Irmo welcomes everyone to the event. Secure a good spot for the parade across from the railroad tracks near Lexington Medical Center on St. Andrews Road. Get a picture with the Okra Man. And be sure to try the fried okra. Stan recommends enjoying it with a dash of salt.