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Published: January 19th 2012
The only surviving plantation house on the Ashly River
Today I explore the source of Charleston’s wealth, the rice plantations along the rivers.
Most of them have been subdivided at this point, so getting an authentic view of one is difficult.
The Charleston area has four that have been turned into museums.
I knew that more than two would produce fatigue, so I picked carefully.
I ended up with two that give very different perspectives on the plantation life.
Drayton Hall Drayton Hall
was founded in 1738
by John Drayton
, a member of one of South Carolina’s wealthiest families.
It produced rice for nearly a half century, and then switched to cotton.
It is the only plantation along the Ashley River that survived the Civil War intact.
The exact reason has been lost to history, but the accepted one
is that the manager at the time, another John Drayton, was a physician and he placed flags that the place was used as a yellow fever hospital.
Certain buildings in the Charleston area actually were used as such at the time, so the Union troops believed him and stayed away.
After the Civil War the Drayton family moved out, although they continued to own the
Drayton Hall interior
Drayton Hall is deliberately unrestored and unfurnished. Rooms have no electric lights, climate control, or other modern conveniences either.
land and visited regularly.
They left the property in the hands of groundskeepers who had formally been slaves.
One very important consequence of this is that the house was never updated for modern conveniences; it lacks the indoor plumbing and electric lights of other historic houses.
Eventually, the National Trust for Historic Preservation bought the site.
The site provides a very different experience
from most historic sites.
The Trust has left it in pretty much the condition when they acquired it.
The house has no furniture whatsoever because it was empty at the time.
The paint on the walls is grey and green because the last owner painted them that way.
Some doors are missing because they were stolen in the early 1900s.
Compared to other house tours, this one feels like a ruin.
On the plus side, the facilities are accurate to the time.
There is no heat.
There are no electric lights and no chandeliers.
The house is cooled by opening windows, just like the original family did.
There are no bathrooms or running water either.
All this lends an air of authenticity
Drayton Hall Slave Cemetery
The slave cemetery at Drayton Hall. Only a few of the newer graves have headstones.
that other sites lack, due to their being recreations of the original time.
The tours are conducted by knowledgeable guides who point out what each room was for, and how it would normally be furnished.
This is a good thing, because otherwise there are few clues as to what happened where.
The guides also point out how the Draytons survived after the Civil War: by mining phosphate from their lands.
The tour finishes in the basement, which was both slave quarters and kitchen.
It’s as bare as the rest of the house.
The road out leads by the poignant slaves’ cemetery
When slaves died on the plantation, they were buried in unmarked graves in a corner of the property.
After 1865, some former slaves and their descendents continued to be buried here.
The current site has a map and display panels describing the layout of the plots.
Only a few of the more recent ones have headstones.
The rest is overgrown forest.
The entrance now has a gate by Phillip Simmons (see Heart of Darkness in the Holy City
The other site
Middleton Gardens parking lot
The beauty of Middleton Gardens starts long before the entrance gate
was a very different place, Middleton Gardens
The plantation was founded by Henry Middleton
, whose was president of the first Continental Congress
He built a large brick plantation house, and hired the leading garden architects of his time to create glorious formal gardens.
He clearly wanted to show off his wealth and taste.
The family remained prominent in local and national politics for nearly a century; until one of them, Williams Middleton, signed the Order of Secession
To Union supporters, this made the Middletons the worst sort of traitor, and they took revenge.
Near the end of the war, soldiers from New York burned and looted the house and trashed the gardens.
The earthquake of 1886 finished off what was left, except for one outlying building.
For the next half century, the place was basically abandoned.
Eventually, a descendent, J.J. Pringle Smith
, began restoring the gardens to their former glory.
The current site is a testament to his success.
Tours of the plantation are self-guided, with a booklet from the admissions desk.
It’s one of the better booklets of this type I’ve seen, with a history of the site and clear
The reflecting pool just inside the entrance to Middleton Gardens
descriptions of each part of the gardens.
Equally important, it fits easily in a pocket when folded.
The landscaping actually begins in the parking lot.
It consists of rows of pine trees, with individual parking spots between the trees.
The paths from the parking to the admissions desk are lined with white azaleas.
has three distinct sections, reflecting the garden design trends at the time they were added.
The central section is the formal gardens.
These are laid out on a geometric grid, forming a shape of a triangle.
Everything in it reinforces the idea of precise order, reflecting the ideal social structure of the plantation.
These ideas were created by French architect Andre le Norte
(remarkably, they resurfaced two centuries later in the urban design schemes of Le Corbusier; Days of Future’s Past
This part of the gardens has dense foliage and plants alternating with pools and wide lawns.
The first thing encountered after the entrance is a reflecting pool.
It is long and thin, and surrounded on all sides with multi-colored azalea and magnolia plants, and huge old oak trees.
When the sun
The butterfly lakes at Middleton Place. The rice processing mill is on the right, and the Ashly River lies in the distance
is out, the reflections on the pool are indeed magnificent.
The next part is the great lawn.
This is what visitors would normally see first when the plantation was active.
It has the shape of an oval within a rectangle.
It’s obvious from the design that something should be at the top of the oval, but the space is empty.
Once I was close, the reason revealed itself: the area contained a pile of charred bricks.
This was the location of the plantation house.
The surviving outlying building is now a museum
containing furnishings from the Middletons.
It has taken a long time for the Gardens to recover items from looters and their descendents, a process which is still going on, one auction at a time.
I skipped the museum because it is mostly the decorative arts I’ve already seen on other house tours.
Another great lawn lies on the far side of the remains of the plantation house.
This one drops down a hill in a series of steps to the Ashley River.
At the bottom of the hill is the Garden’s
A portion of one of the secred gardens within Middleton Gardens.
most famous feature, the butterfly lakes.
Located on either side of the central path to the river, they are shaped like a butterfly’s wings.
The central path is precisely aligned so it lines up with the central doors of the (former) plantation house and the driveway entrance.
On either side of the lawn are rows of azalea flowers and topiary pine trees.
At the corners are hundred years old oak trees.
Behind the flanking gardens is another crucial site, the springhouse.
The bottom covered the spring used for water.
The upper portion was originally used for storage.
The site is crucial because in the early 1800s, it was converted to a chapel for the plantation’s slaves.
It was places like this that allowed slaves to retain aspects of African culture, which ultimately formed the current Gullah.
After the main lawns, the tour goes though yet more formal gardens.
One holds rows and rows of camellias, which were first planted in the US here.
Another holds rows and rows of roses.
In the spring, all of this was gloriously colorful.
The azalea lake within the romantic gardens at Middleton Gardens. I took the photo from the hill above the lake.
section held the two secret gardens.
Along a path covered with dense bushes lie two openings, one on either side.
Ducking though either reveals a small open lawn with statues.
The Middletons used these gardens for cocktail parties with close friends and business associates.
The formal gardens used to filled with statues, but most were taken by looters or destroyed during the Civil War.
Beyond the formal gardens lies the second portion, the romantic gardens.
In the 1820s, the concept of the ideal garden had changed.
The goal now was to expose people to nature, so counteract the corrosive effects of modern civilization.
These gardens attempted to recreate the natural environment (in a much prettier state, of course).
The first feature is the azalea lake.
The builders created a small lake and surrounded it with every color of azalea in existence, which they then allowed to grow naturally.
In the spring, when they are blooming, the result is a color explosion.
Two oak trees, hundreds of years old, overlook the scene.
Next to the lake is the cypress swamp
All of this land had
The cypress swamp at Middleton Gardens. This is a recreation of the area's original landscape
originally been swamps before they were cleared for rice cultivation.
The cypress swamp recreates this environment.
It’s covered in cypress trees, bamboo, and more azaleas.
I find it ironic that the only piece of pre-settlement forest on the plantation is really a man-made recreation!
The azalea lake is really just the warm up for the real flower feast.
On the other side of the formal gardens lays a millpond, exactly mirroring the location of the azalea lake on the other side of the great lawn.
It was built to power the mill used to thresh the rice.
On the far side of the millpond is a hill, which is completely covered with azaleas!
In the spring, prepare for a living Monet painting, mirrored in the lake.
A trail goes through them and over the lake on a bridge, which may cause sensory overload.
The final part of the gardens is the actual plantation fields.
Most of them are gone at this point, but one has been recreated.
The plot has panels describing what it took to grow the rice
Rice growing took vast
Millpond and azalea hill
The millpond at Middleton Gardens, with a hillside of azaleas behind it
amounts of skilled labor.
The field had to be flooded to precise depths, at precise times.
When it was dry, the rice had to be constantly weeded.
Finally, harvesting and processing required weeks of work.
Once that was done, the soil was prepared for next year’s planting.
At no point was there time for rest.
Slaves dying from overwork after a few years were a common occurrence.
No wonder less labor intensive cotton ultimately took over in most of the south.
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